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.
Delaware Governor Jack Markell has granted more than 1500 pardons in his six years in office, substantially more than any of his predecessors. According to articles by Chris Barrish and Jonathan Starkey in the Delaware News Journal, the “dramatic increase” in the number of people applying for pardon in Delaware has been “driven by getting jobs.” In defending his record of generous pardoning, Governor Markell noted that the state had adopted 50 new background check requirements for employment in the past several years, and that people with convictions need a governor’s pardon to enable them to overcome the stigma of conviction to obtain employment and stay on the road to rehabilitation. The two articles are here and here.
A recent issue of Governing Magazine reports that pardoning is “making a comeback” after decades of neglect. It would be nice if it were true.
But the evidence of comeback is thin. Almost all of the jurisdictions where pardoning is thriving today are the same ones where it was thriving a decade ago. In a dozen states, including Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Nebraska, South Carolina and South Dakota, pardon has never been neglected, much less abandoned by responsible officials. In these jurisdictions and a handful of others, pardon has deep roots in the justice system and is supported by accountable institutions of government.
It is certainly true that Pat Quinn of Illinois and Jerry Brown of California have made generous use of the power of their office after years in which the pardon power in their states languished unused. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia is a newcomer to the small group of governors who evidently feel that pardoning is a responsibility of office. All three are to be commended for it. But three swallows do not make a summer.
In updating our book on New Jersey Collateral Consequences, J.C. Lore and I analyzed the provisions of New Jerseys’ new Opportunity to Compete Act, signed by Governor Christie in August and scheduled to become effective on March 15, 2015. The Act applies a ban-the-box requirement to most public and private employers with more than 15 employees. Having followed the bill through its passage in the House last spring, we were disappointed but not surprised to see that there were a number of employer-friendly amendments added to the Act just prior to final action in the Senate, with the result that there is a great deal of uncertainty about what the law actually accomplishes. The important provisions omitted from the bill in the Senate, after lobbying by business and industry groups, included
- A prohibition on considering certain types of criminal histories, including conviction records after a certain number of years;
- A private right of action against employers;
- A definition of “initial employment application process” that permits inspection of criminal records at an earlier stage of the employment process;
- A requirement that an employer make a good faith effort to discuss the applicants criminal record if it is of concern; and
- A provision permitting negligent hiring suits in cases of “gross negligence.”
The bill as amended also preempted local ban-the-box laws, so that Newark’s more progressive ban-the-box ordinance appears to be on life support.
Attached are the enacted version of the New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act, as well as the “advance law” with brackets to show which language was removed in the Senate.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Much chastened, the author of the NACDL Restoration of Rights Resource has made appropriate modifications in the New Jersey profile. Note that similar last-minute amendments also substantially weakened the Delaware ban-the-box law, omitting similar provisions that would have prohibited employers from considering certain types of criminal records, notably convictions more than 10 years old. In the same fashion, last-minute amendments to Vermont’s Uniform Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act restricted its coverage to less serious offenses, disappointing its sponsors.
The lesson for advocates is that they must be eternally vigilant for last-minute lobbying by special interests to dilute provisions of progressive legislation intended to give people with a criminal record a fairer chance in the workplace. – ML