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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Excessive filing fees frustrate new expungement schemes

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:

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The many faces of expungement in America

An article from The Marshall Project published on September 17 got us thinking about the elusive term “expungement” and what it really means, both functionally and philosophically.  In Five Things You Didn’t Know About Clearing Your Record: A primer on the complicated road to expungement, Christie Thompson describes an unusual class action lawsuit recently filed by a public-spirited lawyer in a Tennessee county court seeking “to have the case files destroyed for hundreds of thousands of arrests and charges that never resulted in a conviction.”  She proceeds to point out some of the pros and cons of expungement relief, including that expunged records may still be available from private background screening companies or the internet.

But the problems with expungement laws are deeper than the article suggests. Quite apart from theoretical objections to relief based on pretense, the fact is that expungement laws have functional flaws even where public records are concerned.  For example, the Tennessee expungement law described in the Marshall Project article has no effect on records in the possession of law enforcement or prosecutors, or on appellate court records and opinions.  See Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-32-101(b)(1).  Moreover, it authorizes release of expunged arrest histories of a defendant or potential witness in a criminal proceeding to an attorney of record in the proceeding upon request. See § 40-32-101(c)(3).

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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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The New Southern Strategy Coalition works on criminal records reform in the South

“I don’t know why everyone is talking about the New Jim Crow; in the South the old one never went away.” – 2013 New Southern Strategy Coalition conference participant

Introduction

The New Southern Strategy Coalition is a collaborative network of Southern advocacy groups and their national allies, originally convened in 2011 and dedicated to reducing the negative consequences of a criminal record in the South.  Because the South has always been seen as a region resistant to criminal justice reform, many national groups do not have a presence there, and state-based advocacy efforts are generally underfunded and understaffed. The voices of those most affected are missing from southern state capitols, and the region is often left out of the national dialogue altogether.

NSSC addresses these challenges by providing opportunities for southern organizations to network and share information about regional best practices to minimize legal barriers to reentry. The premise is that state-specific reform efforts in the South will be supported and magnified by the Coalition’s collective goals operating across a unified landscape.  NSSC holds regional conferences to discuss effective reform strategies, provides training and materials, ensures that the voices of directly affected individuals are included in a meaningful way, and uses web-based and social media tools to leverage reform efforts.

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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