Upgrades to the Restoration of Rights Project

We are pleased to announce the completion of a major project to upgrade our flagship resource, the Restoration of Rights Project (RRP).  The RRP is a free on-line compendium of legal research that describes and analyzes the laws and practices relating to criminal record relief in the United States.  The improvements we have made will make it easier for our readers to gain both a snapshot and more detailed understanding of how record relief laws and policies operate within each of the 50 states, D.C., 2 territories, and the federal system.  They will also facilitate comparisons of how different states address various types of relief, producing a national-level picture against which each state can measure its progress.

This major undertaking was a collaboration between CCRC staff and four students at Yale Law School: Jordan Dannenberg, Kallie Klein, Jackson Skeen, and Tor Tarantola.  We thank these students, as well as YLS Professor Kate Stith, for their excellent contributions to our mission of promoting public engagement on the issues raised by the collateral consequences of arrest or conviction.

The state-by-state profiles, summaries and 50-state comparison charts from the RRP are what we rely on in preparing periodic and year-end summary reports on new legislation, which we track and add to the RRP in real time throughout the year.  The research and analysis in the RRP also informs our commentary on everything from new court decisions and scholarship to politics and practice, as well as the amicus briefs we file from time to time in significant litigation.  It is the foundation of our work on model legislation.  The RRP provided the raw material for a national overview report of record relief laws and policies, Forgiving and Forgetting in American Justice, which was last revised in August 2018.  Because of this report’s value in identifying overall patterns and emerging trends, we are already at work bringing it up to date with the more than 200 new laws passed since it was last revised.

Through the upgrade project we reorganized and expanded the RRP in three major ways.

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Report Card: Grading states on 2019 record reforms

The following is an excerpt from our recent annual report on legislative reforms, Pathways to Reintegration: Criminal Record Reforms in 2019.

Report Card

For the first time this year we have prepared a “Report Card” on how state legislatures performed in 2019 in advancing the goals of reintegration.  We have not covered all states, only those we thought most and least productive.  We hope this new feature of our annual reports will provide an incentive to legislatures across the nation, and a tool for legislative advocates.

New Jersey gets the top mark as Reintegration Champion of 2019 for the most consequential legislative record of any state last year.

In this inaugural year, New Jersey gets the top mark as Reintegration Champion of 2019 for the most consequential legislative record of any state last year.  New Jersey’s “Clean Slate” law authorized an automated record-clearing process for many thousands of misdemeanor and felony convictions going back decades, and extended eligibility and improved procedures for petition-based discretionary expungement  relief.  New Jersey enacted two other important laws promoting reintegration.  One limited felony disenfranchisement to people in prison, immediately restoring the vote to about 80,000 people still completing their sentences in the community.  Unlike the executive orders that have this effect in New York and Kentucky, New Jersey’s law will not be easily retracted when the statehouse changes hands.  Another new law repealed provisions mandating suspension of driver’s licenses for conviction of drug and other non-driving crimes, for failure to pay court debt, and for failure to pay child support.

In commending New Jersey’s legislative accomplishments, we would be remiss not to recognize the key role played by Governor Phil Murphy in making criminal record reform the cornerstone of his legislative agenda, and by key legislative leaders, who together persuaded the legislature to enact in a single year a bolder set of reintegration laws than any other in the country to the present time.[i]

As runner-up, Colorado enacted 10 laws on criminal records, voting rights, ban-the-box, and immigration.

Colorado is runner up for our new Reintegration Champion award, based on a prolific legislative record that is a close second to New Jersey’s.  In 2019 Colorado enacted ten record reform laws, among them an ambitious rewriting of its code chapter on criminal records, a law restoring voting rights to parolees and one extending ban-the-box to private employers, and two new measures to avoid deportation as a consequence of conviction. Colorado’s productive 2019 followed an almost equally productive 2018, when its legislature regulated occupational licensing agencies and gave its courts authority to remove mandatory collateral penalties.

Honorable mention goes to 6 states (IL, MS, NV, NM, ND, WV) for productive legislative seasons, while 5 other states (AR, DE, CA, NY, UT) were recognized for a specific notable new law.    

Honorable mention for a productive legislative season goes to six states: Illinois and Nevada (with nine and eight laws, respectively, some significant); New Mexico and North Dakota (for their comprehensive first-ever record-sealing schemes, and ban-the-box bills);  Mississippi (for its extensive regulation of occupational licensing, management of diversion courts, and repeal of mandatory driver’s license penalties for drug and other non-driving crimes); and West Virginia (for two significant laws, on record relief and occupational licensing, as well as a diversion bill).  Five additional states deserve recognition for notable enactments:  Arkansas for a major revision of its occupational licensing law; California and Utah for their automated record relief laws (though Utah’s scheme is not as far-reaching as New Jersey’s, and California’s is prospective only); New York for two measures to limit access to undisposed (pending) cases; and Delaware for its first comprehensive expungement scheme.

Low marks go to three of the seven states that enacted no record reform laws at all in 2019: the legislatures of Alaska, Georgia, and Michigan have been the least productive in the land in recent years where restoration of rights and status is concerned.  Kansas, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania also produced no new laws in 2019, but all four states enacted major record reforms in 2018 so we give them a pass.

We conclude by noting that many of the states not mentioned in this inaugural Report Card made progress last year in limiting access to and use of criminal records, and we were hard-pressed not to single a few more of them out for credit.  It is clear to us that almost every state sees criminal record reform as an important and challenging legislative agenda.  We anticipate that in 2020 states that have been comparatively cautious in their recent law-making will be inspired to take larger steps as they see what more ambitious jurisdictions have already been able to accomplish.

Note: In response to this report, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy tweeted:

Read the full report here.

[i] See, e.g., Governor Murphy’s statement accompanying his “conditional veto” in August 2019 of an early version of the bill that would become the Clean Slate law that he signed on December 19, 2019.  In that statement, after applauding the legislature’s extension of eligibility for petition-based expungement, he noted the example set by Pennsylvania’s own Clean Slate law the year before:

“Only those individuals who actually apply for an expungement, meaning those who are aware of this potential remedy and have the wherewithal to navigate the legal process or afford an attorney to assist them, would be able to seek the relief afforded by the expungement process. This method is not the most efficient means for clean slate expungement, nor will it deliver relief to all eligible individuals who need it. To avoid this shortcoming, we should follow the lead of Pennsylvania and undertake the necessary steps to establish an automated, computerized expungement system that would allow people with multiple convictions for less serious, non-violent crimes who maintain a clean record for ten years to clear their criminal histories without having to hire a lawyer or wade through a paperwork-intensive process. Our system is not set up to do this now, and undertaking this task will require buy-in and commitment from all three branches of government. On behalf of the executive branch, that is a commitment I am more than willing to make.”

See https://www.state.nj.us/governor/news/news/562019/docs/S3205CV.pdf.  Senator Sandra Cunningham, Senate President Sweeney and Speaker Coughlin were particularly effective partners in the negotiations that resulted in the bill that was approved by the legislature in December.

CCRC reports on criminal record reforms in 2019

We are pleased to publish our annual report on criminal record reforms enacted during the past calendar year.  This is the fourth in a series of reports since 2016 on new laws aimed at avoiding or mitigating the collateral consequences of arrest and conviction.  This year we have included for the first time a Report Card grading the progress of the most (and least) productive state legislatures in 2019.  The press release accompanying the report is reprinted below:

Report finds record-breaking number of criminal record reforms enacted in 2019

February 17, 2020

Washington, D.C. — The Collateral Consequences Resource Center (CCRC) has released a new report documenting the astonishing number of laws passed in 2019 aimed at promoting reintegration for individuals with a criminal record.  Last year, 43 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government enacted an extraordinary 153 laws to provide criminal record relief or to alleviate the collateral consequences of arrest and conviction, consequences that may otherwise last a lifetime and frequently have little or no public safety rationale. 

The year 2019 was the most productive legislative year since a wave of “fair chance” reforms began in 2013, a period CCRC has documented in a series of legislative reports (2013-2016, 2017, and 2018). 

CCRC’s 2019 report, titled “Pathways to Reintegration: Criminal Record Reforms in 2019,” is available here.

This report is our first to include a Report Card on how state legislatures performed during the year in advancing the goals of reintegration,” said CCRC Executive Director Margaret Love. “We wanted to recognize New Jersey as Reintegration Champion for having the most consequential legislative record in 2019, including three important new laws authorizing clean slaterecord relief, restoring voting rights, and curbing driver’s license suspensions.

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Record-breaking number of new expungement laws enacted in 2019

This is the third in a series of comments describing some of the 153 laws passed in 2019 restoring rights or delivering record relief.  The full report on 2019 laws is available here.

Criminal record relief (expungement, sealing, set aside)

As in past years, the reform measure most frequently enacted in 2019 was record relief, i.e. expungement, sealing, or other mechanism to limit access to criminal records or set aside convictions.  This past year, 31 states and D.C. enacted no fewer than 67 separate bills creating, expanding, or streamlining record relief.  This total does not include a dozen other new laws authorizing non-conviction dispositions that will be eligible for record-clearing under existing law.  A trend we observed in our 2018 report toward “a growing preference for more transparent restoration mechanisms” that limit use of a criminal record, as opposed to access, does not appear so obvious to us this year.  If anything, jurisdictions appear to be looking for new efficiencies in clearing records.

In 2019, 27 states and D.C. made certain classes of convictions newly eligible for expungement, sealing, or vacatur relief.  Five of those states enacted their first general authority for expunging or sealing convictions (North Dakota, New Mexico, West Virginia, Delaware, Iowa), making record relief available for the first time to thousands of people.   Nonetheless, most potential beneficiaries of these new relief schemes find them hard to navigate:  eligibility criteria are frequently complex and unclear, and court procedures are usually intimidating, burdensome and expensive.  These and other barriers to access have been shown to discourage the law’s intended beneficiaries.

To obviate the need for individual applications, in 2019 three states followed the example set by Pennsylvania’s 2018 “Clean Slate Act” by enacting automatic relief for a range of conviction and non-conviction records (Utah, California, New Jersey).  Specific provisions of these important new laws are described in the following pages, and in greater detail in the relevant state profiles in the Restoration of Rights Project.  Six additional states focused automatic relief provisions on specific offenses or dispositions (

, Illinois, New York, Virginia, Nebraska, Texas).

Also notable were bills providing relief for victims of human trafficking and for marijuana offenses.  Seven states and D.C. authorized relief for victims of human trafficking, allowing them to vacate, expunge, and seal a range of criminal records resulting from their status as a victim.   Seven other states—all of which have legalized or decriminalized marijuana—authorized record relief for certain marijuana offenses, including two automated relief measures (New York and Illinois).

In addition to these marijuana measures, which often extend to arrests and other non-conviction records, eleven states extended relief to certain non-conviction records for the first time.  Most far-reaching, new provisions in New York’s annual budget bill limited access to cases in which there has been no docket entry for five years; precluded the inclusion of such undisposed cases in background check reports; and extended New York’s automatic sealing of non-convictions to cases decided prior to the enactment of that relief in 1992

Finally, thirteen states enacted 18 laws to streamline and/or make more effective the procedures for obtaining relief under existing mechanisms.  Three states (Colorado, Washington, and New York) made particularly noteworthy and broad-based procedural reforms to their criminal records laws.

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To summarize the bounteous haul of record relief laws enacted in 2019, we have organized them into three categories: (1) new automatic relief schemes; (2) new petition-based relief; and (3) improved procedures and effect of existing record relief mechanisms.

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New 2019 laws reduce workplace barriers for people with a criminal record

This is the second in a series of comments describing some of the 153 laws passed in 2019 restoring rights or delivering record relief.  The full report on 2019 laws is available here.

Consideration of criminal record in occupational licensing and employment

In 2019, 26 states and the federal government enacted 42 separate laws limiting consideration of criminal record in either employment or occupational licensing, or both.  For the first time, Congress joined the lively national conversation about the need to reduce record-related barriers in the workplace that are inefficient and unfair.

Regulation of licensing accounted for 30 of these new laws, continuing a trend begun in 2017 that has transformed the licensing policy landscape and opened opportunities in regulated professions for many thousands of people.  As explained in our report on 2018 laws, these licensing reforms are particularly important in supporting reintegration, since studies have shown that more than 25% of all jobs in the United States require a government-issued license.

The new wave of licensing reforms resurrects a progressive approach to occupational opportunity that dates from the 1970s, and it has been strongly influenced by model legislation developed by the Institute of Justice (IJ), a libertarian public interest law firm, and the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a workers’ rights research and advocacy group.  Despite their origin in differing regulatory philosophies, the IJ and NELP model laws reflect a similar approach:  they limit the kinds of records that may result in disqualification, rejecting vague “good moral character” and other criteria irrelevant to competence,  insisting that individual denials be grounded in findings of rehabilitation and public safety with rigorous due process guarantees, and making agency procedures more transparent and accountable.  In the IJ model, applicants can seek binding preliminary determinations of qualification, and agency compliance is monitored by disclosure and reporting requirements.

The new licensing laws borrow features of the comprehensive schemes enacted in 2018 in states like Indiana and New Hampshire, though in 2019 most states took a more cautious approach to reining in licensing agencies.  Some states (like Mississippi and Nevada) enacted generally applicable laws for the first time, while others returned to the task begun in previous legislative sessions.  Arizona, for example, has enacted significant licensing reforms for three years running, while Texas enacted no fewer than five separate licensing measures in 2019 alone—two of them of general application and quite significant, and the other three opening opportunities in health care occupations to people who may have been denied them earlier in life.  Arkansas, North Carolina and Oklahoma significantly expanded existing licensing schemes.

Compared to occupational licensing, 2019 was not a banner year for new fair employment laws.  Still, ten states and the federal government enacted a total of 14 new measures to promote opportunities in the workplace.  Most of the new laws continue the expansion of “ban-the-box” laws in public and private employment, including a significant new law covering employment by federal agencies and contractors.

The only 2019 enactment that directly prohibits consideration of criminal record in employment is Illinois’ extension of its Human Rights Act to bar employers and housing providers from considering arrests not resulting in conviction and juvenile adjudications.  Since 2019 was also a year that saw doubt cast on the legality of the EEOC’s extension of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to cover employment discrimination based on criminal record, more states may step up in coming years.  As of the end of 2019, only four states (California, Hawaii, New York, and Wisconsin) include criminal record discrimination in their general fair employment schemes, and all but California’s law date from the 1970s.  Colorado, Connecticut, and Nevada have, like Illinois, more recently prohibited some employers from considering certain criminal records, but those prohibitions are not integrated into a broader nondiscrimination law.

The new 2019 licensing and employment laws are described in more detail below, and can be viewed as they interact with other relief provisions in the relevant state profiles from the CCRC Restoration of Rights Project.

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Model law proposes automatic expungement of non-conviction records

An advisory group drawn from across the criminal justice system has completed work on a model law that recommends automatic expungement of most arrests and charges that do not result in conviction.  Margaret Love and David Schlussel of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center served as reporters for the model law.  It is available in PDF and HTML formats.

“Many people may not realize how even cases that terminate in a person’s favor lead to lost opportunities and discrimination,” says Sharon Dietrich, Litigation Director of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and one of the advisors of the model law project.  “Over the years, my legal aid program has seen thousands of cases where non-convictions cost people jobs.”

In proposing broad restrictions on access to and use of non-conviction records, the project aims to contribute to conversations underway in legislatures across the country about how to improve opportunities for people with a criminal record.  Already in 2019, states have enacted more than 130 new laws addressing the collateral consequences of arrest and conviction.  The group regards its model as the first step in a broader law reform initiative that will address conviction records as well.

Law enforcement officials make over 10 million arrests each year, a substantial percentage of which do not lead to charges or conviction.  Records of these arrests have become widely available as a result of digitized records systems and a new commerce in background screening and data aggregation.  These checks often turn up an “open” arrest or charges without any final disposition, which may seem to an employer or landlord more ominous than a closed case.

Very few states have taken steps to deal with the high percentage of records in repositories and court systems with no final disposition indicated.  Paul McDonnell, Deputy Counsel for New York’s Office of Court Administration and a project advisor, noted: “Criminal records that include no final disposition make it appear to the untrained eye that an individual has an open, pending case, which can have serious results for that person. New York has recently made legislative progress in addressing this problem, though more can be done.”

Current state and federal laws restricting access to and use of non-conviction records have limited application and are hard to enforce.  Eligibility criteria tend to be either unclear or restrictive, and petition-based procedures tend to be burdensome, expensive, and intimidating.  In recent years, lawmakers and reform advocates have expressed a growing interest in curbing the widespread dissemination and use of non-convictions, leading some states to simplify and broaden eligibility for relief, reduce procedural and financial barriers to access, and in a handful of states to make relief automatic.

Rep. Mike Weissman, a Colorado State Representative and model law project advisor, noted that Colorado has recently overhauled its laws on criminal records with broad bipartisan support.  “It is heartening to see similar reforms underway in other states, both red and blue, as well.  I commend the practitioners and researchers who helped formulate the model law for illustrating avenues for further progress in reducing collateral consequences.”

The model law would take this wave of criminal record reforms to a new level.  It recommends that expungement be immediate and automatic where all charges are terminated in favor of an accused.  Uncharged arrests should also be automatically expunged after a brief waiting period, as should dismissed or acquitted charges in cases where other charges result in conviction.  Cases that indicate no final disposition should also be expunged, unless there is indication that they are in fact pending.

The model law also recommends that expunged non-conviction records should not be used against a person in a range of criminal justice decisions, including by law enforcement agencies.  It would prohibit commercial providers of criminal background checks from disseminating expunged and dated non-conviction records, and civil decision-makers from considering them.

David LaBahn, President of the national Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, indicated that organization’s support for the model law, stating that the collateral consequences of non-convictions “do not serve to make the community safer,” and that “the current structures in place to expunge a non-conviction record can be confusing and difficult for the layperson to navigate alone.”

This model law sets the stage for jurisdictions to address record relief for convictions more generally, and its structure and principles can be brought to bear on that important work.

The Collateral Consequences Resource Center organized this model law project.  An early draft of the model law was discussed at an August 2019 Roundtable conference at the University of Michigan that was supported by the Charles Koch Foundation.  The model law report was supported by Arnold Ventures.

Read the model law in PDF or HTML.

Legislative update: third quarter 2019 sees more new licensing and expungement laws

In July we reported on the extraordinary number of new laws enacted in the first half of 2019 aimed at restoring rights and status after arrest and conviction.  A total of 97 separate pieces of legislation, some covering multiple topics, were enacted by 38 states and many broke new ground in their jurisdictions.  Moreover, clear trends begun in 2018 accelerated in the first half of 2019, as state lawmakers continued to focus most of their attention on facilitating access to record-clearing.  In addition, a significant number of new laws limited the authority of occupational licensing boards to disqualify a person based on criminal record.  Another area of progress was restoring voting rights.

Those trends continued over the summer, with 17 new laws, including significant laws enacted to regulate occupational licensing and expand record relief, including but not limited to marijuana convictions.  Several states showed a keen interest in exploring the possibility of automating record relief, although only one state actually enacted an automatic relief system by the end of the quarter (New York, for marijuana convictions).  (California enacted a “clean slate” law shortly after the beginning of the fourth quarter.)  At the end of the third quarter, Arkansas, Colorado and Florida were studying the feasibility of automating relief, North Carolina was considering automatic expunction of non-conviction records, and the Governor of New Jersey was attempting to persuade his legislature to adopt an automated system for convictions as well as non-convictions.)

By the end of the third quarter of 2019, 42 states had enacted an unprecedented total of 114 laws restoring rights and status, and more new laws on the horizon.

All of the laws described briefly below are more fully analyzed in the context of the state’s overall restoration scheme, in the detailed profiles of the Restoration of Rights Project.

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CCRC to hold roundtable on criminal records at U. Michigan Law School

We are pleased to announce that we are convening a roundtable meeting in August 2019, hosted by the University of Michigan Law School, to develop a model law on access to and use of criminal records, specifically in cases that do not result in a conviction.

In March, we began a major study of the public availability and use of these non-conviction records – including arrests that are never charged, charges that are dismissed, deferred and diversionary dispositions, and acquittals.   Law enforcement agencies and courts frequently make these records available to the public allowing widespread dissemination on the internet, both directly and through private for-profit databases.  Their appearance in background checks can lead to significant discrimination against people who have never been convicted of a crime, and result unfairly in barriers to employment, housing, education, and many other opportunities.  Research has shown that limiting public access to criminal records through mechanisms like sealing and expungement increases the earning ability of those who receive this relief, which in turn benefits their families and communities.

The problems of access and use are not limited to private actors:  a recent court decision in New York suggests that police departments in some jurisdictions make operational use of sealed non-conviction records even when the law prohibits it.

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Survey of law enforcement access to sealed non-conviction records

As part of our non-conviction records project, we have researched what state laws provide on law enforcement agency access to and use of sealed or expunged non-conviction records for routine law enforcement purposes.  This issue is particularly salient in light of an ongoing lawsuit against the New York Police Department in which a New York state court found that the NYPD’s routine use and disclosure of sealed arrest information—without securing a court order—violates New York’s sealing statute.

Looking across the country, we found an almost even split on this issue: exactly half the states either do not allow law enforcement access to sealed records for routine law enforcement activity, or condition law enforcement access on a court order (as in New York) or formal written request.  Specifically, we identified 25 states and two territories that appear to limit law enforcement agency access to and/or use of non-conviction records, either absolutely (12 states and two territories), or without a court order (11 states) or formal written request to the state custodian of records for a specified purpose (two states).  The other 25 states, plus two territories, the District of Columbia and the Federal system, exempt law enforcement agencies generally from sealing or expungement laws, or in a few cases have no law authorizing sealing of non-conviction records (American Samoa, the Federal system, and Wisconsin).

Note a couple of things about the way we conducted this research.  First, our results apply only to records that do not result in a conviction (though in many states the answer is the same for records that do), and we classified them according to their apparent application to law enforcement operations (some states allow law enforcement agency access for employment and certification purposes).  There are a handful of states that bar law enforcement agency access but allow access by prosecutors, both generally (NC) and in specific situations (AR, KS), and we classified these as barring law enforcement access, because the possibility of police access to records through prosecutors is not the kind of unregulated direct access at issue in the New York litigation.

The second thing to note is that our results say nothing about how easy or hard it is to get a non-conviction record sealed or expunged, or who is eligible for this relief.  For example, of the states whose laws bar access, New York offers sealing of non-conviction records right at disposition as a routine matter, with the burden on the prosecutor to show why sealing isn’t appropriate (and it is a high bar).  Other states in the “no access” or “court order” categories (e.g. Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia) require a defendant to file a separate civil petition after an eligibility waiting period, disqualify based on prior record, require a hearing at which the petitioner has the burden of showing why relief should be granted, and even impose civil filing fees.

Our classification tells a bit more about the scope or effect of sealing/expungement relief in each state more generally, since states that “delete” or “erase” non-conviction records are more likely to specifically bar law enforcement agency access than states that merely limit public access to the record.  But even states that provide some public access (e.g., by licensing boards) may also bar access for law enforcement functions (e.g., KS).  (Further information about the effect of sealing or expungement relief in each state may be found in the Restoration of Rights Project profiles.)

Our state-by-state research follows.

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Updated report on 2018 fair chance and expungement reforms

On January 10, 2019, we released a report documenting the extraordinary number of laws passed in 2018 aimed at reducing barriers to successful reintegration for individuals with a criminal record.  Since that time, we discovered five additional laws enacted in 2018 (in AL, PA, OR, MO, and the U.S. Virgin Islands), and have updated our report accordingly.

In 2018, 32 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands enacted at least 61 new laws aimed at avoiding or mitigating the collateral consequences of arrest and conviction, consequences that may otherwise last a lifetime. The CCRC report analyzes last year’s lawmaking and summarizes all 61 new authorities, which include 57 statutes, 3 executive orders, and one ballot initiative.

Last year saw the most productive legislative year since a wave of “fair chance” reforms began in 2013.  CCRC documented these earlier developments in reports on the 2013-2016 reforms and 2017 reforms.  In the period 2012–2018, every state legislature has in some way addressed the problem of reintegration.  Congress has not enacted any laws dealing with the problems presented by collateral consequences for more than a decade.

The state laws enacted in 2018 aim to break down legal and other barriers to success in the courts, the workplace, the pardon process, and at the ballot box:

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