Indiana courts interpret new expungement law

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.

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Can the pardon power be revived through procedural reforms?

Mark Osler has posted a new piece arguing for an overhaul of the federal pardon process so that it more closely resembles efficient and productive state clemency systems. He argues that flaws in the process for administering the power, rather than a failure of executive will, have prevented President Obama from carrying out his ambitious clemency agenda directed atlong-sentenced drug offenders.  Streamlining the process will enable presidents to use the power more generously and effectively.

This seems to us to an oversimplified solution to the theoretical and practical problems with what President Obama has been trying to do. Moreover, at least in the absence of constitutional amendment, any structural changes in the federal pardon process would have to be reaffirmed by each new president, and would likely be opposed by the Justice Department and Congress.

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Federal expungement order reversed on appeal

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.

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Prez promises to catch up on pardons — but he’s far behind

We have wondered whether President Obama would ever turn his attention to what has become the red-headed stepchild of the clemency caseload: full pardons to restore rights and status after service of sentence.  To date President Obama has focused on commuting prison sentences, and has issued fewer pardons than any full-term president since the Civil War.  It appears that the time may be at hand.

The Politico reported on Thursday that at a press conference the day after his most recent batch of sentence commutations, President Obama said he intended to grant more full pardons before the end of his term – a lot more.

At a news conference at the Pentagon on Thursday, a reporter [Greg Korte of USA Today] noted that Obama has been the stingiest two-term president on forgiveness since John Adams.  Obama acknowledged that his administration has “focused more on commutations than we have on pardons.” “I would argue,” he continued, “that by the time I leave office, the number of pardons that we grant will be roughly in line with what other presidents have done.”

The President also indicated that he did not intend to change his pardoning practices at the end of his term: “The process that I’ve put in place is not going to vary depending on how close I get to the election.”

President Obama will no doubt grant more full pardons before the end of his term, in addition to more commutations.  But it will be a tall order for him to match his predecessors even “roughly” in absolute number of pardons.  For example, George W. Bush granted 189 pardons, Bill Clinton granted 396, and Ronald Reagan granted 393.  Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford granted 593 and 382 full pardons, respectively. By contrast, after seven and a half years Obama has granted a total of only 66 full pardons (not counting the four pre-conviction pardons granted to Iranians prior in last year’s foreign policy “swap”).  Only George H.W. Bush had issued fewer grants nearing the end of his tenure — and to be fair he served only one term and received far fewer applications.

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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.”

 

New York City agency called on the carpet for employment discrimination

At least on paper, New York City has the strongest legal protections in the Nation for people with a criminal record, and for employers and others who are willing to give them a chance. The State’s vaunted certificates of relief remove mandatory legal disabilities and certify rehabilitation, and are available to any and all defendants.  Governor Cuomo has shown his interest in restoration of rights by adopting a broad reform agenda, and the City’s ban-the-box law is among the broadest in the Nation.  Both State and City have broad human rights laws intended to protect people with a criminal record from unwarranted discrimination.  But with all this web of beneficent laws and rules and policies, some City agencies apparently still have not gotten the word.

In a decision handed down on July 12, a New York judge chastised the City’s Department of Education for refusing to license a woman as a school bus attendant based solely on a 2010 conviction for petty larceny, an action for which he found no basis in fact or law. Read more

What (if anything) does the Virginia voting rights decision tell us about the president’s pardon power?

On July 22, 2016, the Virginia Supreme Court struck down a series of executive orders issued by Governor Terry McAuliffe restoring voting and other civil rights to more than 200,000 convicted individuals.  See Howell v. McAuliffe (Va. 2016).  The court, in a 4-to-3 decision, disputed the governor’s assertion that his restoration power was absolute under the state’s Constitution. “We respectfully disagree,” the majority justices wrote. “The clemency power may be broad, but it is not absolute.”   Governor McAuliffe responded to the court’s action by promising to restore the vote on an individual basis to everyone affected by his orders, starting with the 13,000 who had already registered to vote.  More details of the reaction to the court’s ruling are reported here.

The Virginia court’s decision is interesting for what it may tell us about the possibility of class-wide grants of clemency, whether full pardon or sentence commutation, under the president’s pardon power. In finding limits on the governor’s restoration power under the Virginia constitution, the court relied upon two other constitutional provisions that have no analogue in the U.S. Constitution.

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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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Washington enacts Certificate of Restoration of Opportunity

2000px-Flag_of_Washington.svgWashington State courts are now authorized to grant certain individuals a Certificate of Restoration of Opportunity (CROP), which prohibits many state licensing entities from disqualifying the holder solely based on his or her criminal history.  A CROP also protects employers and housing providers from liability for negligent hiring and renting.  The new certificate authority was created by HB 1533, which was signed by Governor Jay Inslee on March 31 and took effect last month.

In light of the trend toward giving courts responsibility for restoring legal rights and certifying rehabilitation, we took a closer look at who is eligible for this newest judicial certificate and the benefits it confers.  Read more

Excessive filing fees frustrate new expungement schemes

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:

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