We have recently revised and brought up to date the 50-state chart comparing laws on judicial sealing and expungement. This chart provides an overview of the national landscape of laws authorizing courts to restrict public access to criminal records. The chart summaries are illustrated by color-coded maps, and explained in greater detail in the state “profiles” of relief mechanisms that have been part of the Restoration of Rights Resource since that project began in 2004. We hope this research will provide a useful tool for civil and criminal practitioners, policy advocates, and government officials.
A brief overview of research methodology and conclusions follows.
A criminal record severely restricts access to many opportunities and benefits that can be indispensable to leading a law-abiding life. Unwarranted discrimination based on criminal record was recognized as an urgent public policy problem by President Obama when he established the National Clean Slate Clearinghouse. In the past decade, as the collateral consequences of conviction have increased in severity, state legislatures across the country have been actively exploring ways to set reasonable limits on the use of criminal records for noncriminal justice purposes, consistent with public safety. One of the most popular measures involves restricting public access to criminal records through measures most frequently described as “expungement” or “sealing.” Our recent report on “second chance” legislation identified 27 states that just since 2013 have given their courts at least some authority to limit access to records.
At the same time, however, judicial authority to close the record of concluded criminal cases remains quite limited, with only a dozen states authorizing their courts to restrict public access to a substantial number of felony convictions. The fact that nine of these 12 states have had broad sealing schemes in place for many years underscores how difficult it is to make much legislative progress in a risk-averse environment where criminal background checking has become big business.
Since 2013, almost every state has taken at least some steps to chip away at the negative effects of a criminal record on an individual’s ability to earn a living, access housing, education and public benefits, and otherwise fully participate in civil society. It has not been an easy task, in part because of the volume and complexity of state and federal laws imposing collateral consequences. To encourage employers and other decision-makers to give convicted individuals a fair chance, some states have enacted or modified judicial restoration mechanisms like expungement, sealing, and certificates of relief. Others have extended nondiscrimination laws, limited criminal record inquiries, and facilitated front-end opportunities to avoid conviction.
In partnership with the NACDL Restoration of Rights Project, the CCRC maintains a comprehensive and current state-by-state guide to mechanisms for restoration of rights and status after conviction. As a part of keeping that resource up to date, we have inventoried measures enacted and policies adopted by states in the past four years to mitigate or avoid the disabling effects of a criminal record, and present it here as a snapshot of an encouraging national trend.
The surest way to avoid the collateral consequences of conviction is to avoid conviction in the first place. Pre-trial diversion programs offer defendants a chance to do just that, by having the charges against them dismissed before they even reach court. But there is often a catch that puts this benefit out of reach for those of limited means.
Diversion programs are controlled by prosecutors, who may condition dismissal of charges on the defendant’s participation in educational, rehabilitation, or community service programs for which the defendant must foot the bill. These costs, along with attendant administrative fees set by prosecutors, can price out many of the low-income defendants who stand to benefit most from the second chance that diversion promises. Even if defendants can come up with the necessary cash for participation, they may find the promised relief illusory. Because prosecutors have near total control over the programs, deciding who is eligible and what is required, defendants must first convince prosecutors that they are worth taking a chance on before the opportunity will be offered.
An illuminating two-part expose’ in last week’s New York Times (“No Money, No Mercy“) takes a close look at how these programs operate, and the fate of defendants who have worked to earn a second chance but find themselves ultimately unable to afford it or benefit from it. Since prosecutorial control of the programs obscures their operation to a large extent, The Times “gathered information, statutes and fee schedules on 225 diversion programs in 37 states and interviewed more than 150 prosecutors, defense lawyers, defendants and experts,” to develop a sobering national overview. The piece documents how the burden of a criminal record is imposed disproportionately and unfairly on people of color and limited means through unreviewable decisions of prosecutors, effectively re-creating the peonage that replaced slavery immediately after the Civil War.
You can read The Times’ full expose, “After a Crime, the Price of a Second Chance,” here. The second part of the series focuses on Dothan County, Alabama to detail some of the more egregious racial and class inequities that result from high fees and prosecutorial control. See “Alabama Prosecutor Sets the Penalties and Fills the Coffers,” linked here. A follow-up piece published on January 6 (“Forcing a District Attorney’s Hand”) documents the difficulties experienced by the Times reporter and photographer in obtaining the Dothan County story. The Times published a Letter to the Editor commenting on the series by CCRC Executive Director Margaret Love.
We summarize the broad points of the series below, but highly recommend reading it in full.
The revolving door between prison and homelessness is an unfortunate and well-documented feature of our criminal justice system. But it is not just those returning from prison who are at risk. Even a conviction for a relatively minor offense – and, in some instances, simply being charged with one – can result in a lifetime of housing insecurity, both for individuals and their families. These problems are the focus of an excellent new report from the National HIRE Network that examines criminal record-based housing restrictions across the country and describes what is being done by a few jurisdictions and the federal government to put the brakes on the cycle of conviction, homelessness, and recidivism.
Although record-based housing restrictions are implemented by both private and public housing providers, it is public housing restrictions that pose the biggest risk to individuals with criminal records since their statistically lower income makes them more likely to rely on federal subsidies for housing. Attached to those subsidies are a number of federally-mandated restrictions, including a permanent and automatic ban for anyone convicted of producing methamphetamine in public housing or of a sex offense requiring lifetime registration, and permissible eviction followed by a three-year bar (that may be reduced) for drug-related criminal activity.
But, as the report discusses, those federal restrictions are just the beginning. Federal law explicitly permits subsidized housing providers to reject applicants if a household member has engaged in criminal activity that is violent, drug-related, or that “would adversely affect the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises” and that was committed within a “reasonable time” before applying. That loose standard gives providers enormous discretion to determine who gets in and who gets shut out:
Pennsylvania has been active in recent years in expanding its judicial relief mechanisms, though it still has a long way to go to catch up to states like Kentucky, Missouri, and New Jersey, which have in the past 12 months extended their expungement laws to some felonies and/or reduced waiting periods. No one has been more active and effective in the effort to increase the availability of “clean slate” judicial remedies than Sharon Dietrich, Litigation Director for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. Sharon has written a comprehensive guide to existing authorities on expungement and sealing in her state, which also discusses pending bills that would extend these laws. The abstract follows:
The National Employment Law Project (NELP) recently published its November 2016 On the Record: Fair Employment newsletter which provides links and information on a number of interesting developments related to collateral consequences and criminal record mitigation. The full newsletter is available below:
In June we covered two recent studies that concluded ban-the-box policies tend to decrease minority hiring because some employers use race as a proxy for criminal history. In other words, in the absence of information about applicants’ criminal history, some employers assume that minority applicants have a record and exclude them on this assumption. The result is that ban-the-box policies increase opportunities for whites with a criminal record but decrease them overall for minorities, and thus encourage unlawful discrimination. Some observers, including one of the study authors, advocated for the repeal of ban-the-box policies based on those conclusions. Last week, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) published a critique of those studies, pointing out that any adverse effect on racial minorities is ultimately the product of unlawful discrimination barred by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, not banning the box. In NELP’s view, the solution is “a robust reform agenda that creates jobs for people with records and dismantles racism in the hiring process, not [rolling] back the clock on ban-the-box.” We republish the summary and introduction of NELP’s critique below.
Two recent studies claim that “ban the box” policies enacted around the country detrimentally affect the employment of young men of color who do not have a conviction record. One of the authors has boldly argued that the policy should be abandoned outright because it “does more harm than good.” It’s the wrong conclusion. The nation cannot afford to turn back the clock on a decade of reform that has created significant job opportunities for people with records. These studies require exacting scrutiny to ensure that they are not irresponsibly seized upon at a critical time when the nation is being challenged to confront its painful legacy of structural discrimination and criminalization of people of color.
Our review of the studies leads us to these top-line conclusions: (1) The core problem raised by the studies is not ban-the-box but entrenched racism in the hiring process, which manifests as racial profiling of African Americans as “criminals.” (2) Ban-the-box is working, both by increasing employment opportunities for people with records and by changing employer attitudes toward hiring people with records. (3) When closely scrutinized, the new studies do not support the conclusion that ban-the-box policies are responsible for the depressed hiring of African Americans. (4) The studies highlight the need for a more robust policy response to both boost job opportunities for people with records and tackle race discrimination in the hiring process—not a repeal of ban-the-box laws.
A new article in the Harvard Law & Policy Review evaluates some of the recent legislative efforts to deliver relief from the burden of collateral consequences through new or expanded expungement laws. In “A New Era for Expungement Law Reform? Recent Developments at the State and Federal Levels,” Brian Murray argues that many of the newer record-closing laws are far too modest in scope and effect to have much of an impact on the problem of reintegration, citing Louisiana and Maryland enactments as examples of relief that is both too little and too late. He admires Indiana’s broad new expungement scheme, which limits use of records as well as access to them, regarding it (as do we) as an enlightened exception to a general legislative aversion to risk. He considers recent legislation in Minnesota to fall into a middle category — and we could add Arkansas as another state to have recently augmented and clarified older record-closing laws. Our round-up of new expungement laws enacted just this year finds very little consistency from state to state, with Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and New Jersey all experimenting with different approaches.
Murray appreciates the need for a multifaceted approach to the problem of criminal records, and recognizes the doctrinal and practical shortcomings of a reform agenda that depends primarily on concealment. His bottom line, with which we agree, is that “[s]kepticism regarding the benefits of expungement in the information age, coupled with the incremental nature of legislative reform, leads to the conclusion that expungement law must continue to develop as one piece in a larger puzzle.”
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,
A new article in the Stanford Law Review discusses the radically different forms of punishment in the United States and Europe, which its author attributes at least in part to differing moral visions of wrongdoing and wrongdoers. In Two Cultures of Punishment, Joshua Kleinfeld argues that while Americans tend to regard serious offenders as “morally deformed people rather than ordinary people who have committed crimes,” European cultures “affirm even the worst offenders’ claims to social membership and rights.”
Kleinfeld illustrates this “divergent moral vision” by the very different approach European countries take to collateral consequences. (The other two areas discussed in the article are lengthy prison terms and capital punishment). Whereas in this country people convicted of crime are subject to a lifetime of legal restrictions and social stigma analogous to older forms of civil death, and are effectively consigned to a kind of “internal exile,” in Europe people who have committed a crime benefit from numerous measures to encourage their reintegration.