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In Mississippi, Felony Expungement Bill Opens Doors for Youth

July 11, 2013
Zoe Schein

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Last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) of Mississippi —an NJJN member—helped pass HB 1043, a bill that would make it possible for youth charged with certain felonies to work toward having their records expunged. SPLC has been working for years on a felony expungement bill for people convicted of felonies as minors. “This bill for us represents two years of trying to get to the point where we could make the difference in young folks’ lives,” said Jody Owens, the director of SPLC-Mississippi “As we’ve done juvenile justice and corrections work in Mississippi, we continue to find that our purpose here is systemic reform. It’s a broken system.”

Owens notes that felony records can be nearly insurmountable obstacles for young people, preventing them from finding employment, joining the military, or even living with their parents, due to restrictions on people with felony records residing in public housing.

“[For many of these kids], there was a period of time [after they were adjudicated] where they were trying, but they weren’t being helped. They consistently said, ‘Nobody will hire me because of my record,’” Owens said.

Owens emphasizes the impact of incorporating a financial element to SPLC’s argument on behalf of the bill. “It had to be narrowly tailored. There are people out there who believe that [kids who commit a crime] don’t deserve a second opportunity, and for those people, we have to give them another reason, and that’s a financial reason. We have the second-largest prison population per capita in the country. We’re spending $40 million on corrections every year. How do we decrease the population in the prison system, but maintain public safety? That was the critical question we had to answer.” Allowing young people to escape the shadow of their felony records, Owens argues, will open doors for work, education, and other opportunities critical to avoiding reoffense. 

For Owens, though, it's the opportunities, not the savings, that make this legislation valuable. “This is a bill where kids can show that they’ve been taught the error of their ways and don’t go back to a life of crime. If this happens to a kid at sixteen, if they can stay clean at 22 or 23, that individual has the rest of their life available. We hope with this bill we’ll give kids a second chance at life to be productive citizens.”

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