Why should expungement be limited to “nonviolent” crimes? Dissecting the REDEEM Act (II)

The REDEEM Act currently in committee in the U.S. Senate provides the first authority for “sealing” federal criminal records since the repeal of the Youth Corrections Act in 1984.  As we described in an earlier post, the Act would provide significant relief from many of the collateral consequences imposed on those with a federal rap sheet.  But the Act’s limitation on eligibility to “nonviolent” crimes, together with its corresponding restriction on consideration of state priors, threaten to undermine the Act’s beneficent purpose — not simply by categorically excluding many deserving individuals from relief, but also by inviting endless wrangling over which particular individuals are deserving.

Increasingly, scholars and advocates are questioning the glib and thoughtless distinction politicians have for years drawn between violent and non-violent crimes for purposes of sentencing.  The unfairness of categorically excluding all offenses falling within a broad definition of violence, without regard to how long ago the conduct occurred or how minor, is compounded when the record sought to be sealed did not result in a conviction.

But perhaps the most persuasive reason for federal lawmakers to junk the distinction between violent and nonviolent offenses is a practical one, since it is frequently impossible to determine if a particular federal crime is violent or not, as the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Johnson v. United States demonstrates.  If the distinction must be retained, definitions need to be clarified lest disputes over coverage result in few people actually getting relief.  The good news is that the necessary fix is a simple one:  rather than defining vaguely which offenses are eligible for sealing, the REDEEM Act should define precisely which offenses are not.

We start with a description of the REDEEM Act’s eligibility criteria, then show why they will give the government an opportunity to frustrate the Act’s intent.  Indeed, a wag has described them as catnip for the litigious.

Read more