One Black woman CEO‘s organization is making a big difference.

Sheena Meade is the CEO of The Clean Slate Initiative, a national bipartisan organization “dedicated to advancing policy that automatically clears all eligible arrest and conviction records across the country.”

So far, the organization has helped pass legislation in 12 states that provides a path to record clearance for 15 million people. 

Meade recently spoke to Blavity about the Clean Slate initiative and the work that is being done. She spoke about the goals of the initiative, the impact of Clean Slate legislation, challenges faced, success stories, collaborations and future plans.

What inspired you to join the Clean Slate initiative, and what are its main goals and objectives?

I was inspired to join The Clean Slate Initiative after my involvement in the Amendment 4 campaign, which restored voting rights for more than 1.4 million Floridians with past felony convictions in 2018.  I saw this campaign prioritize people over politics and unify people beyond political lines or economic status to rally around redemption, second chances, and forgiveness. I recognized that the Amendment 4 campaign was the blueprint for the Clean Slate work and saw it as a natural extension of my work to make record clearance possible. I was enthusiastic to expand these efforts to offer pathways to accessibility to housing, education, and employment, while simultaneously dismantling barriers to these very same resources. What particularly excited me was the opportunity to continue developing winning strategies and bringing together individuals of all demographics to push to advance a bipartisan issue.

At the Clean Slate Initiative, we are working to dismantle stigmas associated with having a record and ensuring that individuals are not solely defined by their history. Our mission is to pass and implement laws that automatically clear eligible records nationwide for people who have completed their sentence and remained crime-free, and expand who is eligible for clearance. This work would have a significant impact on millions of individuals affected by arrests or convictions. As a directly impacted individual, I understand the barriers people with records face. While I have not received record clearance yet, I’m dedicated to creating a path for not just myself but the millions of people who are deserving of the opportunity to be defined beyond their mistakes. Our ongoing commitment is to steadily reduce the number of people facing barriers due to their records by making automatic record clearance a reality and transformatively shifting how people view those with records. 

Can you explain how the process of automatically clearing eligible arrests and convictions through some of the policies and legislation that The Clean Slate Initiative has helped enact?

What’s beautiful about Clean Slate policy is that it takes the burden off of the individual. The current process for record clearance is filled with red tape and makes it difficult for people to get their records cleared. They may have to petition the courts, do a ton of paperwork, or pay fees associated with the process – and this may look different from state to state. The Clean Slate Initiative is working to streamline and automate that process. Once someone has served their time and remained crime-free for a certain amount of time, Clean Slate policy would ensure that their record would automatically be cleared of eligible offenses. 

What impact do you hope Clean Slate legislation will have on individuals with criminal records and their communities?

My hope is that Clean Slate legislation will allow individuals to feel like more than their past or their record. According to the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction, people face approximately 44,000 collateral consequences that impact their lives after serving their time. 94% of employers, 90% of landlords, and 72% of colleges and universities use background checks to screen out applicants with records. It’s clear that previous mistakes can have long-term effects on a person’s life. Through our work, I hope that people are no longer held back from pursuing their dreams or opportunities because of their mistakes whether it be home ownership, employment, or being active participants in their communities. 

Our goal is to also destigmatize having a record and ensure that people can seamlessly reintegrate themselves into their communities without unnecessary barriers. 

What challenges did you face in advocating for Clean Slate legislation, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge we’ve faced is educating people and legislators about the issue, the barriers people face, and how Clean Slate policies will and are impacting communities. This is an issues that transcend political or economic lines. One in three people in America have some type of criminal arrest record – that’s over 114 million people. This is a common sense policy that doesn’t only impact individuals’ lives but has positive implications for our communities, economies, and more. 

Another challenge we face is ensuring that people are notified when Clean Slate policy has been passed in their state and whether they are eligible. Currently, states do not automatically notify people that their records have been cleared, so we hope to continue to educate communities around these policies, how they affect them, and ensure individuals are notified when they have their clean slate.  

Can you discuss any success stories or positive outcomes that have resulted from Clean Slate initiatives?

Due to Clean Slate policies passed in 12 states, up to 15 million people are currently eligible to have their records partially or fully cleared. When I think about how these policies are directly impacting people, I think about stories like a woman named Elvina from Michigan, who for 18 years, struggled to find gainful employment and earn the wages she deserved but faced barriers due to her record. After her record was cleared last April, during the inaugural Second Chance Month where over one million records were cleared on day one, she’s been able to find employment at a state university and has even been promoted since then. This is the type of real-life impact that fuels us to keep doing this work. 

However, the success doesn’t only reach individuals but also has significant societal and economic impacts. A study in Michigan found that a year after record clearance, individuals were 11 percent more likely to be employed and were making over 22 percent higher wages. Record clearance can boost opportunities for individuals and the larger economy. It is estimated that approximately 87 billion dollars are lost annually due to people with records being locked out of the labor force. Clean Slate policies can help reduce recidivism, negate negative impacts on families, and break cycles of poverty and incarceration.  

The positive outcomes from record clearance are endless and a vital set toward reshaping the way we see people with records and the opportunities available to them and their families. 

How do you collaborate with lawmakers, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders to promote Clean Slate legislation?

Our secret sauce is our collaboration and coalition building. Our first priority is to always make sure that we’re working with and centering directly impacted individuals and state-based coalitions across the country to advocate for Clean Slate laws. In our work with policymakers, we collaborate to move the needle on and pass bipartisan Clean Slate laws at the state and federal level, while also ensuring that these are effectively implemented. We also collaborate with faith communities and business partners like J.P. Morgan, Indeed, small businesses and more to expand our impact and engage communities.

Lastly, we collaborate with Code for America which helps us ensure the integration and implementation of the technology with state agencies and existing petition-based record clearance processes. 

What advice do you have for other individuals or organizations advocating for criminal justice reform?

My advice is to make sure the people closest to the pain are the closest to the solution. They should always be centered in the work because you can’t do the work without them. Secondly, I’d encourage others in this space to remain optimistic about the work they’re doing. The reforms we are fighting for are working. They are creating safer communities and impacting mass incarceration. At The Clean Slate Initiative, our mission is record clearance, but mass incarceration and opportunities post-conviction are work that needs us all. Continue to lead with passion and stay close to the mission.  

Looking ahead, what are your plans and goals for the future of The Clean Slate Initiative?

Our goal is to continue to move the path forward to put all 50 states on the pathways to automatic record clearance. Today, we are active in over 28 states and we are excited to build capacity and support around directly impacted organizations and leaders across the country while planting the seeds for Clean Slate policies in additional states.