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
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.
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,
Washington 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
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 New York Times has two great Sunday editorials on issues relating to collateral consequences. One deals with the issue of labeling people with a criminal record, of special concern when headline writers seem unable to resist using what Bill Keller at the Marshall Project recently called “the other F-word.” The editorial points out that ugly demeaning labels like “convict” and “felon” are “an unfair life sentence.” Let us hope the message reaches newsrooms across the country, and that journalists (especially headline writers) will find another way of describing people with a criminal record.
The Times also has another very fine editorial on Virginia Governor McAuliffe’s restoration of the vote to more than 200,000 individuals, pointing out that his authority under the Virginia Constitution is indisputable.
A very good day for the editorial staff of the Gray Lady, whose editorial page is setting an example of enlightened thinking about criminal law issues – notably including the collateral consequences of conviction.
Lincoln Caplan, formerly of the editorial staff of The New York Times and now on the faculty at Yale Law School, has written a thoughtful piece about collateral consequences for the New Yorker. It points out why Governor McAuliffe’s order restoring the vote to Virginians with a criminal record doesn’t help them deal with the myriad of legal restrictions that deny them opportunities, or with what he calls “a relentless form of social stigma.” He concludes that relief measures like expungement, which are based on concealing the fact of conviction, may be less effective for felony-level crimes than more transparent measures like pardon or certificates of rehabilitation. He concludes that “Forgiving, when someone has earned it, gives an individual a fresh start and, just as important, it helps restore the idea of rehabilitation in American justice.”
A featured piece by a well-regarded journalist in such a sophisticated venue may do a lot to bring the problem of collateral consequences to the attention of people in a position to do something about them. We reprint portions of the article below. Read more
Last November President Obama announced plans to create a National Clean Slate Clearinghouse, a joint project between the Departments of Labor and Justice that would “build capacity for legal services needed to help with record-cleaning, expungement, and related civil legal services.” In late February the Labor Department announced plans for a large-scale contract to establish the Clearinghouse, and sought information from likely bidders. Since then, we have been curious about what the scope of the Clearinghouse project would be. Now we know.
This past Monday the Department of Labor issued an official solicitation for bids to develop the Clearinghouse, with the following general overview of the project:
The Clearinghouse will: 1) gather content, launch, host and update a national website that provides, among other things, state-by-state information on sealing, expungement, and other related legal services that lessen the negative impact of having juvenile and criminal records; and 2) develop tools and provide technical assistance to reentry service providers and legal aid organizations on how to use and expand access to sealing, expungement, and other legal services. The Clearinghouse will disseminate information in the area of record sealing and expungement, pardons, certificates of rehabilitation, correcting inaccurate juvenile and criminal records and other strategies to diminish the often lifelong economic and social consequences associated with having a juvenile or criminal record. In addition, the Clearinghouse will provide guidance on the removal of other employment barriers that do not provide a public safety benefit.