Restrictions on access to criminal records: A national survey

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.

Background

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.
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Major new federal awards support second chance advocacy

Earlier this week the U.S. Departments of Justice and Labor made two major awards to the Council of State Governments (CSG) to support the development of resources on collateral consequences and second chance programs.  The awards aim to build capacity within the advocacy community to assist those seeking restoration of rights and status nationwide.

The first award is a $4.6 million contract awarded by the Labor Department for the development of the National Clean Slate Clearinghouse, a federal initiative first announced by President Obama last November.  The Clearinghouse is intended to “build capacity for legal services needed to help with record-cleaning, expungement, and related civil legal services.”

The second award is a $5 million grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to support the ongoing work of the National Reentry Resource Center (NRRC), a project developed by CSG in 2011 with federal funding earmarked in the Second Chance Act of 2007.  One exciting aspect of that award is that it will bring the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC) into the NRRC fold.

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50-state guide to expungement and sealing laws

The 50-state chart of judicial relief mechanisms from the NACDL Restoration of Rights Resource, which is also posted on this site, is a comprehensive survey of all authorities for judicial relief in the states and federal system. We wanted to bring it to our readers’ attention in light of the new federal interest in helping individuals with a criminal record overcome barriers to employment and licensing through clearing their records.

The National Clean Slate Clearinghouse, recently announced as part of President Obama’s reentry initiative, will “provide technical assistance to local legal aid programs, public defender offices, and reentry service providers to build capacity for legal services needed to help with record-cleaning, expungement, and related civil legal services.” This joint project of the Labor and Justice Departments will doubtless make it a first priority to survey the laws providing judicial and other relief in different states, to determine what sort of assistance lawyers will need to neutralize the adverse employment consequences of conviction, though the courts or otherwise.  We hope these resources will prove useful in that effort.

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