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 editors of the New York Times are critical of Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s recent veto of a law that would have allowed anyone with a felony conviction to vote if they are living in the free community. See “A Bad Voting Ban,” June 1, 2015. Maryland’s law now disenfranchises anyone convicted of a “felony and . . . actually serving a court-ordered sentence of imprisonment, including any term of parole or probation, for the conviction.” The Times editorial points out that Maryland changed its law to restore voting rights automatically upon completion of sentence in 2007, and that disenfranchisement based upon conviction is generally a punitive relic of slavery.
So if felony disenfranchisement laws are punitive relics, why should they be applied to anyone, even people who are still in prison? The logic of the Times editors’ position would seem to support voting by prisoners, as happens in Vermont and Maine and in many parts of Europe. An argument against voting by prisoners based on disenfranchisement as an integral part of court-imposed punishment would apply equally to probationers and parolees. The notion that prisoners no longer have a connection to their communities is a self-fulfilling prophecy that runs against current policies of encouraging prisoner reentry. If there are practical reasons to bar prisoners from jury service and political office, they do not apply to voting when absentee ballots have become commonplace.
Earlier this month, Maryland governor Larry Hogan signed the Second Chance Act of 2015, 2015 Md. Laws 313 (HB 244), which allows eligible persons to petition a court for “shielding” (or sealing) certain misdemeanor records. This is the first time Maryland has authorized limits on public access to conviction records other than nuisance offenses and offenses that have been pardoned.
The new law, which goes into effect on October 1, is a significant step forward in the treatment of conviction records in the state. However, its effect may not be as sweeping as many would like. Only a handful of misdemeanor offenses are eligible for relief, and records that have been generally shielded from public access remain available to a significant number of employers and licensing entities. We take a more detailed look at the new law below.