For the first time in its history, Montana has enacted a law authorizing its courts to limit public access to adult conviction records. On April 13, Governor Steve Bullock signed into law House Bill 168, giving district courts the power to “expunge” the records of misdemeanor convictions after completion of sentence, effective October 1 of this year. This makes Montana the 30th state since 2012 to enact some form of record-closing law, or to expand an existing one. The possibility of full destruction of the record for all misdemeanor convictions makes Montana’s one of the more ambitious collateral consequences reform measures of the past several years.
Late Sunday night, the New York Senate finally passed the beleaguered 2017-18 budget bill, which was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo the following day. And while the passage of the bill was good news to New Yorkers eager to avoid a government shutdown, it should be even better news to a significant number of New Yorkers with criminal convictions. Tucked away inside the massive bill is an unheralded provision creating the state’s first general sealing authority for adult criminal convictions. Previously, record sealing was available only for non-conviction records and diversion and drug treatment dispositions. Now sealing will be available for misdemeanors and all but the most serious felony offenses.
The new law, which takes effect in October, gives New York one of the most expansive record-closing authorities in the Nation, rivaling such traditional sealing centers as Massachusetts, Washington, and Minnesota.
High drama on the final day of the West Virginia legislative session produced a last minute compromise between House and Senate over SB76, the WV Second Chance for Employment Act. If the governor signs the bill into law, individuals convicted of non-violent felonies will be able to return to court after 10 years to have their convictions reduced to misdemeanors. [NOTE: The bill was signed into law on April 25.]
For several years the WV legislature has been considering how to improve employment opportunities for people with non-violent convictions, but the House and Senate had different ideas about how to do it. The Senate approach would have expanded the state’s expungement law, which now applies only to youthful misdemeanors, while the House preferred reducing nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors. As the seconds ticked toward midnight on April 8, the Senate agreed to accept the “forgiving” approach favored by the House, creating a new category of “reduced misdemeanor” that need not be reported on employment applications but will be reflected in background investigations.
The following post is republished, with permission, from the National Clean Slate Clearinghouse listserv. In it Sharon Dietrich points out that even after criminal records have been expunged or sealed, they may still be reported by commercial criminal record providers in violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. (See our recent 50-state survey of record-closing laws, with their intended effect.)
You probably are wondering, “What is she talking about, with a subject line like that?” The answer to your thought is that I use this phrase when giving clients an important warning about the effect of their expungement orders. I am illustrating for them the idea that I can’t guarantee removal of their expunged cases from every possible background check, especially those prepared by commercial screener such as Sterling, HireRight, First Advantage and countless others.
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.
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:
On September 15, 2016, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s denial of expungement to a woman convicted 13 years before of forgery and drug-dealing, holding that the court abused its discretion in denying relief where the case fully met the statutory standards. The decision provides a window into how one of the Nation’s most expansive new expungement laws is being interpreted and enforced by the courts of the state. Judging by this decision, the approach to restoration of rights in this otherwise-conservative state remains encouraging.
Here is Olivia Covington’s article from the Indiana Lawyer reporting on the decision, with a link to its full text.
In an eagerly awaited decision, a panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that federal courts have no authority to expunge the records of a valid conviction. As Joe Palazzolo at the Wall Street Journal noted, this effectively “put an end to an experiment by a Brooklyn judge that drew attention to the challenges people with criminal records face trying to find and keep jobs.” In reversing Judge John Gleeson’s May 2015 expungement order in the case of a woman he had sentenced more than a decade before, the court distinguished its precedent upholding a court’s power to expunge arrest records following dismissal of charges. The panel pointed out that
a motion to expunge records of a valid conviction on equitable grounds will ordinarily be premised on events that are unrelated to the sentencing and that transpire long after the conviction itself. For example, in this case the facts underlying the District Court’s sentencing were clearly independent of the facts developed in Doe’s motion filed years later. Conversely, the District Court granted Doe’s motion based on facts and events (her repeated efforts to obtain employment) that transpired years after her sentencing and term of probation.
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.”