In the wake of the Brock Turner case, a new controversy was ignited in Massachusetts last month when 18-year-old David Becker, a white college-bound athlete, received two years’ probation after pleading guilty to indecent assault of an unconscious woman at a house party. As in the Turner case, many are outraged by a penalty they regard as too lenient and the result of white privilege. However, any perceived injustice in the Becker case may be less about an abuse of judicial discretion than about the limited ability of judges to mitigate collateral consequences.
Critics of the decision may be even more concerned to learn that David Becker was not actually convicted of a crime. Instead, District Court Judge Thomas Estes accepted Becker’s guilty plea and ordered a “continuance without a finding” (known as a CWOF) for two years while Becker serves a term of probation. If Becker completes the conditions of probation successfully, the charges against him will be dismissed and the record will be eligible for sealing.
The fact that Becker was not convicted is significant because it allows him to avoid both registering as a sex offender and the numerous collateral consequences that would come with having a criminal record.
Last week Missouri Governor Jay Nixon signed a bill that will dramatically expand the availability of expungement for people convicted of state crimes. The new law (SB-588), which will go into effect in 2018, extends expungement relief to a broad range of felonies and misdemeanors, and reduces the waiting period for expungeable felonies from 20 years to only 7 years following completion of sentence, and the waiting period for misdemeanors from 10 to 3 years. On the other hand, it will limit the number of times that a person may seek expungement during their lifetime and limit the effect of expungement. In particular, it will allow certain employers and licensing agencies to consider expunged convictions as a basis for disqualification, and in a few cases to disqualify automatically based on an expunged conviction.
Under current law, only a handful of misdemeanors and a single felony (passing bad checks) are eligible for expungement. When the new law takes effect, all misdemeanors and all non-Class A felonies will be eligible, subject to a long list of excepted offenses. The list of exceptions includes more serious offenses such as “dangerous” and violent felonies, sexual offenses, and a number of weapons and corruption offenses. As the Riverfront Times reported last week,
How much is a clean slate worth? That’s the question many people with criminal records are asking in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee, where the cost of filing for expungement is (or will soon be) between $450 and $550. To put that into perspective: In Kentucky, the $500 fee required to expunge an eligible felony conviction under a new law that takes effect in July will equal nearly half of the monthly wages of a full-time worker earning the state’s $7.25 minimum wage. The relative cost will be even higher for the many people who have difficulty securing steady full-time employment because of their criminal record. The high filing fee puts relief effectively out of reach for most of those it was intended to benefit, even if they elect to file without retaining a lawyer.
There is a major disconnect between these exorbitant fees and the policy rationale that has led many states to create or expand expungement opportunities in recent years. Expungement improves the employment prospects of people with criminal records, allowing them to achieve a degree of economic stability that in turn discourages further criminal behavior. People held back from economic stability by their criminal records are the people that are likely to benefit most from expungement, and the social advantages of expungement are most keenly experienced among this population. But these are the very people least likely to be able to afford to pay high application fees.
According to an article by Maura Ewing published by the Marshall Project earlier this week that takes a closer look at the issue, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee are outliers among states that allow for expungement in charging such high fees:
Many states charge $150 or less to apply for expungement … and some states offer a waiver if the applicant is too poor to pay.
In the 17 states that allow for expungement of low-level felonies, “the application fee is generally in line with standard court fees.”
So why are the application fees in those three states so high, and where does that money go? Ewing found that while Louisiana’s fees were considered necessary to cover the costs of an inefficient and underfunded justice system, the fees in Kentucky and Tennessee were driven solely by the prospect of generating general revenue. From the article:
A new empirical study provides important evidence that “certificates of recovery/relief” can be effective in facilitating employment opportunities for people with a criminal record. Two University of South Carolina criminologists have concluded that employers in Ohio are willing to look beyond the criminal histories of job applicants who have been issued a Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE) from a state court. The study, which involved sending fictitious resumes to over 300 employers in the Columbus area, found that individuals with a felony drug conviction were more than three times as likely to receive a job interview or offer if they had received a CQE.
Although the study’s findings are described as preliminary, they fill an important gap in our knowledge of the effectiveness of Ohio’s CQE, and by inference of similar certificate schemes in other jurisdictions. Such schemes have to date been justified on the basis of assumptions and anecdotal evidence, with little hard data to vouch for their potency. The abstract follows:
Securing stable, quality employment is one of the most robust predictors of desistance from offending. Yet, obtaining gainful employment is difficult for ex-offenders due to the stigma of a criminal record. In recognition of employment-related barriers to re-entry, some state legislatures have created certificates of recovery/relief, which lift occupational licensing restrictions, limit employer liability for negligent hiring claims, and aim to ensure employment decisions about certificate-holders are made on a case-by-case basis. The present study presents the results of the first empirical test of the effectiveness of such certificates. Using an experimental correspondence design, fictitious applicants applied to entry-level jobs advertised in the Columbus metropolitan area using fabricated resumes with identical names, educational backgrounds, employment experience, and skills. Because the only differences between the resumes were the type of criminal record and the presence of a Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE), the results isolate the specific impacts of criminal records and certificates on employment opportunities. Results indicate that, for job seekers with a one-year-old felony drug conviction, having a certificate of recovery increases the likelihood of receiving an interview invitation or job offer more than threefold. Importantly, certificate-holders and their counterparts with clean criminal backgrounds were equally likely to receive an interview invitation or job offer.
More and more states are enacting new expungement and sealing laws, or expanding existing ones, some covering convictions for the first time. The first four months of 2016 alone saw courts given significant new authority to limit access to criminal records in four states, and bills have been introduced in several others that promise more new laws in months to come.
In April, Kentucky authorized expungement of felonies for the first time, while New Jersey reduced waiting periods for some offenses and made expungement automatic for some others. Also in April, Maryland’s Governor Hogan signed that state’s Justice Reinvestment Act, permitting expungement of misdemeanor convictions for the first time. Beginning in November, Pennsylvania courts will have new authority to seal misdemeanor offenses, and follow-up bills have been introduced in both houses to make sealing automatic for most non-felony records after a waiting period. There are also several pending proposals to significantly expand existing expungement laws in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Rhode Island.
We take a closer look at each of these new expungement authorities below.
The new laws evidence the growing momentum behind second-chance reforms. They also show how expansion of expungement and sealing mechanisms can be an incremental process. For example, the legislatures in Maryland and Pennsylvania first tested the waters by giving courts new authority to mitigate low-level conviction records in relatively limited ways, with both following up shortly after with proposals to increase both the availability and effectiveness of those mechanisms. Meanwhile, states with fairly robust expungement mechanisms already in place, like New Jersey, Missouri, and Kentucky, have taken steps to make relief available sooner and to more people. Relatedly, in the first four months of 2016, six more states enacted or expanded state-wide ban-the-box laws limiting inquiry about criminal records at early stages of the hiring process, bringing the total to 23.
The Department of Education (DOE) is asking colleges and universities to reconsider the use of criminal record inquiries on admissions applications in a new report released on Monday. The report, Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals, looks at how broad inquiries into applicants’ criminal histories may deter people with criminal records from applying for post-secondary educational opportunities. It also suggests steps schools can take to ensure that their admission processes promote second chances for qualified applicants with criminal records, including banning the box on initial applications.
According to the report, “A survey of postsecondary institutions found that 66 percent of them collect CJI [criminal justice information] for all prospective students, and another 5 percent request CJI only for some students.” The Common Application, a uniform application used by nearly 700 schools, has since 2006 asked whether a person has been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony, “or other crime.” Some schools that use the Common Application allow applicants to opt out of disclosure, or delay criminal history inquiries until a preliminary admissions decision has been made. Other schools use their own non-standard applications which may require disclosure of convictions, arrests, or mere allegations of misconduct.
Starting next summer, private as well as public employers in Vermont will no longer be permitted to ask about a job applicant’s criminal history on an initial employment application. The change comes with the enactment of House Bill 261, which Governor Peter Shumlin signed into law yesterday. With the law’s enactment, Vermont becomes just the eighth state to ban the box in private employment. When CCRC Board Chair Rich Cassidy testified in favor of the provision before the Vermont legislature, he emphasized the importance of extending the prohibition to private employers.
In a signing ceremony, Governor Shumlin, who last year issued an executive order banning the box in public employment, had the following to say about the new law’s significance:
Too many Vermonters with criminal records are unable to successfully re-enter their communities due to lack of employment. Banning the box is all about breaking down barriers and giving those Vermonters who have paid their debt to society a fair chance at finding a good job. Nobody wins when Vermonters are trapped in a cycle of unemployment and incarceration.
States are falling short when it comes to making occupational licensing opportunities available to people with criminal records. This is according to a report released this week by the National Employment Law Project (NELP). Unlicensed & Untapped: Removing Barriers to State Occupational Licenses for People with Criminal Records examines the licensing laws of 40 states, and grades each state based on a number of criteria designed to assess how effective the law is at creating licensing opportunities for people with criminal records. The report is a powerful advocacy piece demonstrating the need for nation-wide reform of licensing laws, though it bears noting that its limited scope may distort the bigger picture in some states.
Recent studies and policy discussions focusing on the difficulty people with criminal records have finding employment tend to ignore the fact that nearly 30% of American jobs require state licensure or certification — which is frequently denied based on a conviction. The National Inventory of Collateral Consequences (NICCC) shows that there are over 25,000 formal occupational and business licensing restrictions imposed nationwide at the state or federal level. Many of these restrictions apply regardless of a crime’s relationship to a particular license or the time since conviction. Across the nation, over 10,000 of these restrictions are mandatory and apply automatically, forcing licensing bodies to reject applicants with certain records regardless of their qualifications or evidence of their rehabilitation.
Municipal and county ordinances also regulate employment and business opportunities, including such important entry-level employment as taxi driver and street vendor, though ordinances are not catalogued in the NICCC and so were not included in the NELP report. Read more
On Wednesday Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin signed a bill giving state courts authority for the first time to expunge felony convictions. The new law, HB 40, allows people convicted of specified non-violent class D felonies who have been crime-free for 5 years to petition to have their conviction vacated, charges dismissed, and record expunged. Expunged records are deleted from official databases (including law enforcement), will not show up in background checks, and need not be acknowledged. The court and other agencies “shall reply to any inquiry that no record exists on the matter.”
Democrats in the Kentucky House had worked for years to pass similar legislation, but were unsuccessful until one man’s moving testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee galvanized bipartisan support for the bill. According to the AP,
At least 62,000 convicted felons in Kentucky will have the opportunity to wipe their records clean in part because a 45-year-old man convicted of stealing car radios 27 years ago convinced a powerful Republican lawmaker to change his mind.
West Powell, who has not had a run-in with law enforcement in 27 years, told the Committee:
On Monday the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that housing policies that exclude people with criminal histories may be illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) if the policy fails to consider the nature, severity, and recency of the criminal conduct and is not narrowly tailored to protect residents and property. The new HUD guidance, which applies to private landlords and realtors as well as to public housing authorities (PHAs), stresses that exclusions based solely on arrest records violate the FHA, which prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, and other protected classes.
The new guidance should end landlord reliance on electronic background checks to automatically exclude potential renters or purchasers, and greatly expand housing opportunities available to people with criminal histories, whether or not they are members of classes specifically protected by the FHA. As the New York Times reported on Monday:
Lawyers who represent former prisoners said they expected HUD’s stance to lead landlords to revise their screening policies to avoid litigation. The guidance … could also lead to more and stronger lawsuits against those who continue to deny housing based on criminal history.