Removing Barriers to Economic Opportunity for Americans with Criminal Records Is Focus of New Multistate Initiative

Washington, D.C. — Today, the Center for American Progress, the National Employment Law Project (NELP), and Community Legal Services (CLS) announced the launch of a three-year, multistate initiative to remove barriers to economic opportunity for Americans with criminal records and their families, building on the bipartisan momentum growing across the country for commonsense criminal justice reform.

Following decades of mass incarceration and overcriminalization, 1 in 3 Americans now have some type of criminal record, and nearly half of U.S. children have at least one parent with a record, according to a CAP analysis. Having even a minor criminal record can stand in the way of employment, education, housing, and other pillars of economic stability.

“Even a minor record can be a lifelong sentence to poverty—not just for the person with the record but also for their children,” said Rebecca Vallas, managing director of CAP’s Poverty to Prosperity Program. “States are poised to lead the way on criminal justice reform by championing commonsense reforms that ensure people with records and their families have a fair shot at economic security and mobility.”

At the heart of the initiative, CAP, NELP, and CLS will partner with state-based leaders in criminal justice reform and re-entry to advance two second-chance policies: clean slate automatic record-sealing and occupational licensing reforms. Clean slate policies will be modeled after reforms currently advancing in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, which passed the Senate 50-0 earlier this summer.

“Record-sealing is one of the most powerful tools for removing barriers to employment and more,” said Sharon Dietrich,  litigation director at CLS, which is based in Philadelphia. “The heart of clean slate is the automatic sealing of minor records once a person has proven their rehabilitation by remaining crime-free for a set period of time.”

“Removing barriers to opportunity for people with records and their families is one of the most important things we can be doing to tackle poverty and racial inequality in our country, and states have the ability to make the biggest impact,” said Maurice Emsellem, program director at NELP. “Given that nearly one in four workers in America needs a license or certificate to work in their chosen field, reforming state occupational licensing laws—by removing unfair restrictions against people with records—is a commonsense solution with growing bipartisan support.”

The launch of the initiative coincides with the award of six grants to support state-based projects advancing clean slate automatic sealing and occupational licensing reforms. Selected states for clean slate projects include: Colorado, led by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy; Michigan, led by Hope Network; and South Carolina, led by the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. Selected states for occupational licensing reform projects include: North Carolina, led by the North Carolina Justice Center; Ohio, led by the Ohio Justice and Policy Center; and Rhode Island, led by Direct Action for Rights and Equality.

The initiative’s work—which receives support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation—will benefit from strong partnerships with leading criminal justice reform institutions such as Right on Crime and the transpartisan Justice Action Network. A richly diverse advisory committee will bring a range of perspectives—including those of directly affected individuals, families, employers, and law enforcement—as well as deep academic and technical expertise and bipartisan leadership. Advisory committee members include: Daryl Atkinson, former Second Chance Fellow at the Department of Justice; Julie Basco, deputy director, Office of Research at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; Jim Bueermann, president, Police Foundation; Marc Levin, policy director, Right on Crime; Genevieve Martin, executive director, Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation; Glenn Martin, founder and president, JustLeadershipUSA; Becky Pettit, professor of sociology, University of Texas at Austin; Amy Solomon, former director of policy, Justice Department Office of Justice Programs, and incoming vice president of criminal justice policy at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation; and Matt Visser, president and CEO, VICTIG Screening Solutions.



The Center for American Progress is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to promoting a strong, just and free America that ensures opportunity for all. We believe that Americans are bound together by a common commitment to these values and we aspire to ensure that our national policies reflect these values. We work to find progressive and pragmatic solutions to significant domestic and international problems and develop policy proposals that foster a government that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers. For more about NELP, visit

Founded in 1966 by the Philadelphia Bar Association, Community Legal Services (CLS) has provided free civil legal assistance to more than one million low-income Philadelphians. As the City’s oldest and largest legal services program, CLS represented approximately 9,500 clients in the past year. CLS assists clients when they face the threat of losing their homes, incomes, health care, and even their families. CLS attorneys and other staff provide a full range of legal services, from individual representation to administrative advocacy to class action litigation, as well as community education and social work. CLS is nationally recognized as a model legal services program. For more information, contact 215-981-3700 or visit

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