New era for expungement reform? Too soon to tell.

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.”

 

Missouri expands expungement in a big way

missouri_flagLast 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,

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“Divergent moral vision” — Collateral consequences in Europe and the U.S.

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.

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The pros and cons of fingerprinting Uber drivers

The following piece by Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project was originally published on the Huffington Post.


 

Uber’s ruthless expansion strategy has put state and local legislators in the middle of the debate over regulation of the on-demand, ride-hailing workforce. Laws requiring background checks for drivers, which can restrict access to Uber’s core asset, are now a central theme of the regulatory battle, focusing specifically on the use of state and federal criminal history databases that require fingerprinting of ride-hailing drivers.

Indeed, Uber and Lyft recently chose to abandon the Austin, Texas market rather than comply with local laws requiring taxi drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks (56 percent of Austin voters rejected an initiative to exempt on-demand companies from the city’s law). And in New Jersey and Chicago, where similar measures are now being actively debated, Uber retained former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to lobby against the bills by challenging the accuracy and fairness of fingerprint-based FBI background checks (which is an issue that NELP has championed as an advocate of bi-partisan federal reform legislation).

To help inform the debate, it’s important to first clarify that “fingerprinting” is a shorthand term referring to background checks that require an individual’s fingerprint (usually captured by means of “livescan” technology) to access either a state criminal history repository or the FBI database, which collects data from the state and local systems. In contrast to name-based checks conducted by commercial background check companies, fingerprint-based checks are less vulnerable to misidentification. In addition, private employers typically cannot access the databases requiring fingerprinting of the workers unless authorized by a federal, state, or local occupational licensing law, like the ride-hailing laws regulating taxi drivers. Instead, with varying degrees of accuracy, the commercial background check companies collect criminal history data from the local courts, the states, and “aggregators” of criminal history data.

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Do ban-the-box policies increase racial discrimination in hiring?

Update: The National Employment Law Project has responded to these studies with a critique that we cover here.

Ban-the-box policies have become popular in recent years as a way of minimizing discrimination based on criminal history, and have been adopted by 24 states, the federal government, and a number private companies. But until recently there has been little hard data available about the general effect of those policies on employment opportunities.  A number of recent studies have begun to fill that gap, and the results have been disturbing. The consensus seems to be that while banning the box does enhance the employment prospects of those with criminal records, it also encourages employers to fall back on more general racial stereotypes about criminal history without the “box” to confirm or deny it.

Most recently, a multi-year field study by Amanda Agan (Princeton University) and Sonja Starr (University of Michigan Law School) found that although banning the box made it more likely that individuals with criminal records would receive call-backs from prospective employers, it dramatically increased the gap in call-backs between black and white applicants. Employer responses to over 15,000 fictitious job applications sent to New York and New Jersey employers after ban-the-box policies took effect showed that black applicants received 45% fewer callbacks than white applicants, up from a 7% differential before the new policy took effect:

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Former Obama officials advocate against FBI checks by (some) employers

Last week we posted a letter sent by former Attorney General Eric Holder to the Chicago City Council on behalf of Uber and Lyft, urging that it not require Uber and Lyft to subject their drivers to FBI fingerprint-based background checks applicable to taxi operators.  His main argument was that FBI records are incomplete and misleading, and that they have a discriminatory impact on minorities. It now turns out that the campaign to free these ride-sharing companies from regulatory restrictions is broad-based: Holder has reportedly written to officals in New Jersey and Atlanta considering similar measures, and other former Obama officials are also working for Uber.

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Former AG says no FBI screens for Uber and Lyft drivers

On June 2, former Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to the Chicago City Council asking it not to make Uber and Lyft do FBI background checks on their drivers as a condition of operating within the metropollitan area.  The ride-sharing companies have argued that they should be permitted to vet their own employees.  Mr. Holder’s points out that FBI records are incomplete and thus misleading, and that they are intended for law enforcement purposes, not to screen applicants for employment.

Mr. Holder, whose tenure at the Justice Department was notable for efforts to highlight the problems faced by people returning to the community from prison, then argues more broadly that perfoming background checks on applicants for employment disadvantages communities of color.  In this regard, he notes that 80% of African-American men of working age in Chicago have a criminal record, and only half of them are employed. (This seems to present another one of those “ampersand” situations that so frequently arise these days in the criminal law context.). He concludes by stating that screening employees through FBI record checks is “both unwise and unfair.”

Mr. Holder’s letter does not indicate the context in which it is written, or whether He represents an interested party — though it is written on his law firm stationery so it seems fair to assume he is writing in behalf of either Uber or Lyft, or perhaps both.

Chicago would not be the first city to provoke controversy by requiring ride-sharing companies to perform fingerprint-based FBI background checks on their employees and applicants for employment.  For example, Uber and Lyft pulled out of Austin, Texas, after the city council voted to impose the same background check requirements on ride-share drivers as are required for taxi drivers.  At the same time, reports of driver attacks on ride-sharing passengers raise public concern about the effectiveness of self-regulation. It seems clear that we have not heard the last of this issue.

Kentucky expungement offers fresh start to thousands

 

State Seal ColorOn 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:

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HUD limits housing exclusion based on criminal history

hudseal_teal_1On 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.[1]

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.

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Traveling to Mexico with a criminal record

MexicoMap550Searching for information on whether people with a criminal record may encounter problems traveling to Mexico, we found nothing relevant on the website of the Mexican Embassy in the U.S..  The State Department website contains only a very general warning:

Prior Criminal Convictions: U.S. citizens should be aware that Mexican law permits immigration authorities to deny foreigners entry into Mexico if they have been charged or convicted of a serious crime in Mexico or elsewhere.

However, the website of the Mexican Embassy in Canada explains Mexico’s policy in somewhat greater detail, listing the crimes that are likely to result in a refusal of entry:

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