NEWARK, N.J. — More than two decades ago, Tracey Syphax was released from prison on drug and weapons charges and turned his life around. But the Trenton construction company owner says his past is never far behind him.
"If I was to give up my business tomorrow and go back into the job market, I would still have to put down than I've been convicted for a crime, even though it's been more than 20 years," said Syphax, 51, who was recently honored by the White House for his work helping fellow ex-offenders find jobs.
Now, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rand Paul of Kentucky are teaming up on a bill aimed at helping nonviolent offenders, like those Syphax has worked with, scrub their criminal records clean.
The Democrat and Republican odd couple introduced legislation Tuesday that would automatically expunge the records of juveniles who commit nonviolent crimes before they turn 15 and automatically seal the records of minors who commit nonviolent crimes between the ages of 15 and 18.
The so-called REDEEM act, for Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment, also would create a federal process for nonviolent adult offenders to petition the courts to seal their criminal records, and would provide incentives for states to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. In addition, it would restore access to federal food stamp and welfare benefits for low-level drug offenders in any state who've served their sentences. Currently, only certain states have an exemption that allows such offenders to receive food stamps and welfare.
Supporters of the legislation say it would save cash and help end policies that feed a cycle of recidivism by making it harder for those who leave prison to rebuild their lives.
Booker, who previously teamed with Paul on an amendment aimed at banning action against state medical marijuana laws, said he'd met countless men and women whose mistakes continued to haunt them years later, holding them back from jobs, business licenses or other means to advance themselves.
"What I saw from my years as mayor (of Newark), what I see all up and down the state of New Jersey, from Hackensack to Atlantic City, is people who just feel trapped by a system that doesn't allow them the oxygen necessary to get a job and to make it America," he said in an interview.
Jeremy Haile, who works at the Sentencing Project, which advocates for sentencing policy reforms, hailed the measure as a significant step forward. But like others, he said he'd like to see the legislation extended to other benefits, including federal Pell Grants.
Paul, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, acknowledged that the road to the legislation's passage will be a challenge, but pointed to a bipartisan string of criminal justice measures that have recently gained steam.
"If we could get things to the floor, I think we could actually pass some criminal justice reform," Paul said.