Good Good Good is in Vancouver this week covering TED2023. This article is part of our ongoing, exclusive coverage of the conference, with more interviews and stories to come. Follow along here all week, or on social media with our hashtag #GGGatTED.
When Sheena Meade was arrested in front of her four children, her crime was a bounced check — for about $87 in groceries.
As soon as she got home — thankfully, quickly, because this was her first offense — she immediately paid off the check and borrowed money to pay the fees associated with her arrest. Despite her immediate rectification (of a situation, that, let’s be real — should never have happened to her in the first place), Meade still encountered countless hurdles.
She couldn’t volunteer at her children’s school, couldn’t rent where she wanted to rent, faced barriers trying to go to college — and even now, is excluded from certain certifications and occupational licenses.
“How am I supposed to get out and do better if no one will rent to me, no one will hire me, and I can’t even go to school?” Meade asked, when she took the TED2023 stage in Vancouver.
She said that more than 90% of employers and landlords can deny housing or work to people with arrests or convictions on their records, and 72% of colleges and universities use background checks that make it difficult for those folks to access higher education.
“But I believe that America is a nation of second chances — truly,” Meade said. “Nearly every state has a law on the books that allows someone to get their record cleared once they’re eligible.”
Despite this, Meade shared, there are 30 million people who are eligible to have their records cleared right now, but only 10% of them will actually get it done.
The reason, she said, is that the process is so bureaucratic, costly, and full of red tape, that it’s nearly impossible.
“If your crime was being poor — like mine — record clearance is not even accessible,” she said.
Although the reality feels bleak, Meade is a woman of action.
“I didn’t come all the way to Vancouver, TED, to give you bad news,” she cracked. “I got some good news.”
And she does! Meade’s organization, The Clean Slate Initiative (CSI), works to implement Clean Slate legislation across America that allows for automatic record clearance as soon as folks are eligible.
And CSI was just a $75 million grant from TED’s Audacious Project to support a six-year strategy to pass Clean Slate legislation in 15 states — ultimately unlocking clear records for up to 14 million people.
“This record clearance problem is solvable and fixable,” Meade said. “And we’re doing the damn thing.”
What is Clean Slate legislation?
Clean Slate laws are laws that allow someone’s record to be automatically cleared after they have remained crime-free for a set period of time.
So, instead of waiting years to qualify, having to leave work (that was probably challenging to get in the first place) to appear in person to petition for your clearance, filing loads of paperwork, and paying large fees for each charge on your record, the state simply clears your record automatically after a certain period of time has passed.
“We shift the burden from the person who made the mistake to the system that tries to trap them in that mistake,” Meade said. “Red tape: cut.”
The impact of Clean Slate laws
Clean Slate legislation has already passed in ten states (“I’m talking red states, I’m talking blue states, I’m even talking purple states,” Meade joked), which has resulted in millions of people with cleared records.
“That’s millions of people who no longer have to walk around with stigma and shame attached to their name,” Meade said. “It’s like, with the stroke of a governor’s pen, we were able to unlock dreams for millions.”
These states include Pennsylvania, Utah, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Virginia, Oklahoma, Colorado, California, and most recently, Michigan.
There, CSI celebrated the implementation of automatic expungement in Michigan, which immediately cleared the records of 400,000 people on the law’s very first day in effect.
With the support of The Audacious Project, these wins will continue.
“Think about all the second chances that you’ve received,” Meade asked of the audience at the end of her TED Talk. “Think about what that felt like, what that did for you. For me, it enabled me to turn my pain into purpose, to walk into a room and feel seen; not as damaged goods, but as untapped potential. That is the power of a second chance. That is the power of a clean slate.”
Header image courtesy of Ryan Lash / TED (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)