More than four years ago, Indiana’s then-Governor Mike Pence signed into law what was at the time perhaps the Nation’s most comprehensive and elaborate scheme for restoring rights and status after conviction. In the fall of 2014, as one of CCRC’s very first posts, Margaret Love published her interview with the legislator primarily responsible for its enactment, in which he shared details of his successful legislative strategy. Later posts on this site reported on judicial interpretation of the law. Since that time, a number of other states have enacted broad record-closing laws, including Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, New York, and most recently Illinois.
We have been impressed by the evident enthusiasm for Indiana’s “expungement” law within the state, from the courts, the bar, the advocacy community, and even from prosecutors. So we thought it might be both interesting and useful to take a closer look at how the Indiana law has been interpreted and administered, how many people have taken advantage of it, and how effective it has been in facilitating opportunities for individuals with a criminal record, particularly in the workforce. We also wanted to see what light this might shed on what has brought to the forefront of reform so many politically-conservative states. Spoiler alert: the Chamber of Commerce was one of the strongest proponents of the law.
We expect to be able to post our account of the Indiana expungement law shortly after Labor Day. In the meantime, we thought it might be useful to reprint our 2014 interview with former Rep. Jud McMillan, which has been among our most viewed posts.
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.
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.”
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:
Recently, in commenting on a new expungement scheme enacted by the Louisiana legislature, we noted the disconnect between the stated reentry-related purposes of the law and its lengthy eligibility waiting periods. If people have to log many years of law-abiding conduct before they can even apply for this relief, it is not likely to be of much help to people returning home from prison. Were Louisiana lawmakers unaware that the new expungement law would be unlikely to serve its stated purposes, or did they have some reason for advertising the new law in terms they knew were inapt.
Louisiana has far and away the largest prison population of any state in the country (847 per 100,000 people — Mississippi is second with 692 per), but until last year there was little that those returning home after serving felony sentences could do to unshackle themselves from their criminal records and the collateral consequences that accompany them. While Louisiana has for years authorized expungement of misdemeanor convictions and non-conviction records, the only relief available to convicted felony offenders was a governor’s pardon — very few of which have been granted in Louisiana in recent years. Most people convicted of a felony in the state, no matter how long ago and no matter how serious the conduct, were stuck with it.* That’s why we were interested to learn that in 2014 Louisiana enacted a brand new freestanding Chapter 34 of its Code of Criminal Procedure to consolidate and extend the law governing record expungement to many felonies.
We decided to find out what the new law offers to those with felony records, and how it stacks up against the three other new comprehensive expungement schemes in Arkansas, Indiana, and Minnesota. We found that while a relatively large number of people with felony convictions are newly eligible for expungement relief, the law’s effectiveness is hampered by 1) unreasonably long waiting periods and 2) limited effectiveness in mitigating collateral consequences related to employment and licensure. Read more