New research report: Four Years of Second Chance Reforms, 2013-2016

Introduction

4 year report coverSince 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.

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New era for expungement reform? Too soon to tell.

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.”

 

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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Long waits for expungement frustrate public safety purposes

whiteegret2Recently, 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.

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Louisiana’s new expungement law: How does it stack up?

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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

Michigan takes baby steps on criminal justice reform

Michigan spends one in five tax dollars on corrections so the state continues to explore strategies to safely reduce these costs.  In its most recent session, the legislature fishconsidered bold criminal justice reforms, but strenuous last minute objections from the Attorney General succeeded in halting much of the reform agenda. In the end, only a few reforms were implemented and most of them were passed in watered-down form.

The new laws include (1) the establishment of a Criminal Justice Policy Commission; (2) narrow expansion of set-aside eligibility to victims of human trafficking; and (3) authorization for Certificates of Employability for prisoners who complete certain in-prison training programs.  A more ambitious (though still narrow) expansion of the set-aside law is currently on the Governor’s desk for signature.  These “baby steps” leave lots of room for improvement, but constitute a blueprint for future reform efforts.

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Minnesota’s sweeping new expungement law takes effect

1932MinnesotaSnowScene640Beginning January 1st, 2015, many Minnesotans will have a meaningful shot at a second chance through criminal records expungement. For decades, many individuals have relied upon (and often languished under) a court’s inherent authority to expunge (or seal) criminal records, but recent Minnesota Supreme Court decisions effectively eviscerated that remedy. Without a legislative act expressly granting judicial authority to seal records held within executive branch agencies, the majority of petitioners were granted orders sealing only court records—leaving numerous publicly accessible criminal records untouched.

The new law, passed with bipartisan support and building upon momentum gained with last year’s Ban the Box for private employers, changes that.   It provides new authority for expunging (sealing) both criminal and juvenile records held by executive branch agencies; requires data mining companies to observe expungements, protects employers and landlords hiring and renting to individuals with expunged records, addresses victimization and housing evictions, and clarifies a number of procedural issues.  The standard for granting expungement remains that under current law, requiring the court to balance private and public interests.

While by no means a silver bullet, this new legislation will help a significant number of Minnesotans currently locked out of employment, housing, licensure, education, and countless other of life opportunities, by providing a true opportunity for a second chance.

Here is an explanation of the new law’s specific provisions. 

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How risky is pardoning? Not as risky as committing uninformed journalism

An AP story about the perils of pardoning, picked up by newspapers and media outlets across the country, manages to convey three pieces of misinformation in its very first sentence.  Riffing off a recent high profile pardon application, it begins like this:  “Mark Wahlberg’s plea for a pardon has focused fresh attention on excusing criminal acts – something governors rarely do because it’s so politically risky.”

But pardons do not “excuse” crimes, they forgive them; governors have been pardoning more and more generously in recent years; and pardoning, like any other government program involving personal participation by a high profile elected official, is generally not risky if done in a responsible manner with good staff support and without apology.

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“Second Chances for Teen Offenders”

This New York Times editorial urges states to seal or expunge juvenile records “so that young offenders are not permanently impaired by their youthful transgressions.”  It describes a new study from the Juvenile Law Center that concludes “only a few states have ironclad systems prohibiting employers and members of the public from gaining access to [juvenile] records.”

The first juvenile courts were established more than a century ago on the principle that children deserve special care under the law because they are vulnerable, because their transgressions tend to be nonviolent and because they can be expected, on the whole, to outgrow their youthful misbehavior.

These presumptions are borne out by data showing that 95 percent of young people enter the juvenile justice system for nonviolent crimes like theft or vandalism — behavior they typically leave behind when they move into adulthood. But because some juvenile court records remain open to the public when they should have been sealed or expunged, these young people can be denied jobs, housing and even admission to college.

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More states rely on judicial expungement to avoid collateral consequences

Oklahoma is the most recent state to expand its expungement laws to make more people eligible fOklahomauntitledor record-clearing at an earlier date.  While the specific changes adopted by the Oklahoma legislature are relatively modest, involving reduced waiting periods and fewer disqualifying priors, they are significant as part of a national trend toward enlarging this type of “forgetting” relief for people with minor criminal records.  Details of Oklahoma’s law are available here.

Other states that have enacted new expungement laws or broadened existing ones in the past two years include Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota, and Tennessee.

Alabama’s new expungement law is the first record-closing law in that state and applies only to non-conviction records.  Arkansas and Minnesota broadened or consolidated existing expungement schemes that were already quite extensive.  The Indiana expungement scheme is entirely new and particularly comprehensive and progressive. (An analysis of the new law by its primary sponsor in the Indiana legislature will be posted in this space very soon.)  The effect of this type of “forgetting” relief varies widely from state to state, from complete destruction of records in states like Pennsylvania and Connecticut to more limited relief in Kansas and Indiana, where expunged records remain accessible to some employers as well as law enforcement.

The other type of individualized judicial relief from collateral consequences that is growing in popularity relies not on limiting public access to a person’s criminal record, but instead on Read more