Broken records: criminal history errors cost jobs and housing

Ariel Nelson of the National Consumer Law Center has authored an important new report, Broken Records Redux, which describes how errors by criminal background check companies harm consumers seeking jobs and housing.  In particular, the report shows how background screeners continue to include sealed and expunged records in criminal background check reports, omit disposition information, misclassify offenses, mismatch the subjects of records, and include other misleading information.  The report also examines problems arising from the use of automated processes to evaluate prospective employees and tenants.

This report, a sequel to a 2012 NCLC report on criminal background errors, observes that since 2012 advocates and federal agencies have litigated many actions for violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), leading to settlements and judgments requiring background screeners to reform their processes and pay millions in penalties and relief to consumers.  Despite these lawsuits, “companies continue to generate inaccurate reports that have grave consequences for consumers seeking jobs and housing.”  Based on these issues, the report recommends a broad array of legislative and regulatory changes at the federal and state level.  Accompanying the report is an article: Fertile Ground for FCRA Claims, which describes FCRA violations that can result from “inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated” background checks.

This new report also provides support for policy recommendations in our recently released Model Law on Non-Conviction Records, including restrictions on the dissemination of expunged records and records indicating no disposition by commercial providers of criminal records.

“For expungement and clean slate laws to succeed in removing barriers to employment and housing, they must take into account issues like background check reporting, data aggregation, and the use of stale data,” says Nelson, the author of the NCLC report. “I’m happy to see that CCRC’s Model Law on Non-Conviction Records provides guidance for addressing those issues.”

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.

Algorithms, Race, and Reentry: A Review of Sandra G. Mayson’s Bias In, Bias Out

In true Minority Report fashion, state actors are increasingly relying on algorithms to assess the risk a person will commit a future crime.  Unlike Minority Report, these algorithms simply estimate the likelihood of rearrests; they do not offer the absolute answer to future criminal behavior that condemned the defendant, Tom Cruise, in the 2002 action film.  Still, criminal justice actors are using many types of algorithmic risk assessments to inform their decisions in pre-trial investigations, bail recommendations and decisions, and post-trial sentencing and parole proceedings.  Sandra G. Mayson’s article[1], Bias In, Bias Out, published this year in the Yale Law Journal, explains how these algorithms could reflect and project past and present racial bias in the criminal justice system and elsewhere.

At its core, an algorithm specifies individual traits that are correlated with crime commission.  If the data show that people of color are arrested more frequently, then the algorithm will predict more arrests for people of color.  In this sense, an accurate algorithm “holds a mirror to the past” by “distilling patterns in past data and projecting them into the future.”  Mayson provides an in-depth, yet easy-to-follow explanation of why race neutrality is unattainable when the base rates of arrest differ across racial groups.  These mirror-like algorithms give us the opportunity to clearly view the racial disparity in arrests and convictions.  Is there something wrong with this image, and what should we do now that we’ve seen it?

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CCRC scholarship round-up – August 2019

Editor’s note:  This past year has seen a burgeoning of scholarship dealing with collateral consequences broadly defined, from lawyers, social scientists, and philosophers.  CCRC’s good friend Alessandro Corda has selected fifteen notable articles published in 2018-19, with information, links, and abstracts.  They are organized into five categories:

(1) Legal collateral consequences

(2) Collateral consequences and criminal procedure

(3) Sex offender registration laws

(4) Informal collateral consequences

(5) Criminal records, expungement, sealing, and other relief mechanisms

A complete and regularly updated collection of scholarship on issues relating to collateral consequences and criminal records can be found on our “Books & Articles” page.  From time to time we will preview and comment on new articles, and Alessandro has promised to provide another round-up by the end of the year.  We hope he will continue indefinitely in the role of CCRC’s official bibliographer.  (A PDF copy of this scholarship round-up is here.)

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Commercializing criminal records and the privatization of punishment

The deeply ingrained, indeed, constitutionally protected, U.S. tradition of the public trial and public records has led to a system where there are few restrictions on public access to criminal record information.  Europe, by contrast, is more willing to limit the press in service of important goals such as reintegration of people with convictions. Alessandro Corda and Sarah E. Lageson have published an important new study on how this works on the ground.  Disordered Punishment: Workaround Technologies of Criminal Records Disclosure and The Rise of A New Penal Entrepreneurialism, in the British Journal of Criminology, explains how these traditions play out practically in the United States and Europe.

The paper notes that systematically in the United States, and increasingly in Europe, private actors are “extracting, compiling, aggregating and repackaging records from different sources;” as the authors put it, they are “producing” not merely reproducing criminal records.  In so doing they expand the reach of punishment.  To the extent that any random Joe or Jane can obtain criminal records, then potential associates can make decisions based on records, accurate or inaccurate, showing convictions or even mere arrests or charges which were dismissed, diverted, or led to an acquittal.

The case study of the United States notes that employers, landlords, universities and civic organizations often engage in criminal background screening, but these uses are regulated by the Fair Credit Reporting Act.   However, internet databases scrape and buy official and semi-official sources, criminal, financial, licensing, and many others, and make compilations available for a fee.  These “people search” services, thus far, have successfully claimed they are mere information aggregators not subject to FCRA: “these websites provide disclaimers warning users they are not to use the information for any sort of decision-making (such as hiring or housing decisions) but rather can only use the information for review of public records in an information-gathering spirit.” One wonders: How often might employers, landlords and other decisionmakers skip official FCRA reports and go to an unregulated, perhaps cheaper, web search?  Since the chances of getting caught and punished seem small, one might assume it happens a lot. In addition, the quality of this data is sometimes poor; are such things as expungements and set-asides pursuant to state law are reliably added to the databases?

The result is what the authors term “disordered punishment,” imposition of punishment is not restricted to the state: “Employers, insurers and landlords—but also neighbours, acquaintances and potential partners—ultimately determine whether impactful consequences are imposed and, if so, with what magnitude.”  As a result, the consequences of a crime or an accusation become unpredictable.  In some cases, the consequences will be vastly disproportionate to the underlying conduct, for example, when a serious charge has been made but dropped because authorities believe the accused is innocent or even prove the guilt of someone else.  In such cases, decisionmakers may still conclude that looking for another tenant, employee, or date is the safest course.

The paper does not propose solutions, but the CCRC project on non-conviction records may lead to some reforms that could mitigate the problem.  Perhaps the government should not make some records available at all, perhaps some entities now not subject to FCRA should be included, and at a minimum the law should be set up so that if a conviction has been subject to some sort of set-aside, that fact also must be disclosed.

“Invisible Stripes: The Problem of Youth Criminal Records”

This is the title of a paper by Professor Judith McMullen of Marquette University Law School.  Professor McMullen points out that “the efforts of today’s young people to ‘go straight’ are hampered by nearly unlimited online access to records of even the briefest of encounters with law enforcement, even if those encounters did not result in conviction.”  She argues that “we need to restrict access to and use of information about contacts that offenders under the age of 21 have had with the criminal justice system.”

CCRC’s forthcoming study of how jurisdictions manage non-conviction records underscores the points made in this article.  It may come as a surprise to many that few jurisdictions automatically limit public access to and use of non-conviction records, and in fact many facilitate both through mass on-line posting of records – including arrests that never result in charges.  Even states that authorize courts to seal or expunge non-conviction records frequently impose daunting barriers to this relief, including financial barriers.  A decision of the Iowa Supreme Court last month, upholding a law conditioning expungement of dismissed charges on an indigent defendant’s payment of court-appointed attorney fees, vividly illustrates this access to justice problem that squarely frustrates efforts at reintegration.  There are a number of studies underway of the adverse effect of court debt on reentry, but none that we know of linking court debt to the operation of “clean slate” laws.

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Should potentially severe collateral consequences trigger enhanced procedural protections?

In two recent law review articles, Professor Paul T. Crane of the University of Richmond School of Law proposes that courts and legislators—when deciding whether a criminal defendant is entitled to a particular procedural right—should take into account potential exposure to severe collateral consequences.  The two articles together mark a major contribution to the literature.  Much attention has focused on alleviating or eliminating collateral consequences after the criminal case is closed, via restoration of rights, clemency, expungement, and other forms of relief.  Also, lawmakers, courts, and prosecutors have increasingly turned to diversions and deferred adjudications to avoid a conviction record in the first instance.  However, far less attention has been paid to the procedural rights provided to criminal defendants facing potentially severe collateral consequences.  As Crane points out, collateral consequences are “generally deemed irrelevant for determining what procedural safeguards must be afforded.”

In Crane’s first article, he argues that courts and legislatures ought to take into account a defendant’s exposure to potentially severe collateral consequences in determining whether procedural safeguards, such as the right to counsel and to a jury trial, apply.  In his second article, he proposes a framework for determining when defendants may be entitled to enhanced procedural protections.

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“Third-Class Citizenship” for people with a “violent” record

Professor Michael M. O’Hear of Marquette University Law School has an important new article titled “Third-Class Citizenship: The Escalating Legal Consequences of Committing a ‘Violent’ Crime.”  This marks the first effort to systematically study the full legal consequences of a “violent” criminal charge or conviction, including the collateral consequences that uniquely apply to violent crimes.  O’Hear documents the growing network of these consequences, noting that recent criminal justice reforms tend to exclude people with “violent” as well as “sexual” offenses from relief available to other individuals with criminal records.

O’Hear canvasses the wide range and reach of legal definitions of what actually qualifies as a “violent” crime, concluding that many of these definitions “sweep in large numbers of offenses that lie outside core understandings of what constitutes violence.”  After this, the article provides a 50-state overview of the statutory consequences of a violent charge or conviction, and raises concerns about whether these consequences are proportional, provide fair notice, and promote public safety.

The abstract of the article, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Northwestern University Law School’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, follows:

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Symposium on felony disenfranchisement set for Friday in Missouri

On Friday, April 12, a day-long symposium on felony disenfranchisement will be held at the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO.  The event, hosted by the Missouri Law Review and Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy, is open to the public.

Three panels of scholars will address: (1) the historical origins of conviction-based disenfranchisement and its consequences for democracy—featuring CCRC board member Gabriel “Jack” Chin, among other panelists; (2) felony disenfranchisement, voting rights, and elections; and (3) the democratic challenges of voting rights restoration.  Pamela S. Karlan will deliver the keynote.

For further reference, see our 50-state comparison chart documenting the loss and restoration of voting rights across the country; Gabriel “Jack” Chin’s recent book review: “New book argues collateral consequences can’t be justified”; and our comment on Professor Beth Colgan’s article on how inability to pay economic sanctions associated with a criminal conviction results in continuing disenfranchisement nationwide.

New book argues collateral consequences can’t be justified

University of Nottingham philosophy professor Zachary Hoskins has written an important new book about “collateral legal consequences” (CLCs), just published by Oxford University Press.  Beyond Punishment? A Normative Account of the Collateral Legal Consequences of Conviction engages cases and statutes from the United States and other countries, but it is primarily a philosophical interrogation of the legitimacy of CLCs, not an analysis of legal doctrine or constitutional limitations.

A core principle is the powerful one that harsh treatment and disadvantage requires justification, particularly when hardships are imposed on specific groups.  Beyond Punishment argues that CLCs could be justified as criminal punishment to some degree, but that legitimate punishment is that which is necessary and sufficient to pay one’s debt to society. The way CLCs actually operate in the United States often does not fit into this category.  First, CLCs are not characterized as punishment (and therefore are exempt from the constitutional limitations on criminal punishment) but as civil, regulatory measures.  Second, they are often imposed years after completion of the criminal sentence.

A non-punitive rationale might be that by breaching the social contract, people with convictions are not entitled to the benefits of that contract.  But this proves too much–because someone jaywalked in 1989 does not mean they can legitimately be robbed or defrauded today.  If breaching the social contract justifies only a proportional as opposed to an unlimited response, most CLCs go too far. Beyond Punishment also criticizes public safety as a justification for CLCs, for essentially the same reason: The more or less random and arbitrary imposition of collateral consequences is unduly harsh on some, while others who should be restrained for the same reason but have no criminal conviction are not subject to CLCs.

Beyond Punishment’s careful analysis and precise definitions make a strong case that CLCs are, as Justice Kennedy said about imprisonment itself, disabling “too many persons for too long.”  But the tradition of American constitutional jurisprudence, anyway, has not been to require rigorous fairness or precise justification for hard treatment.  Even with regard to incarceration, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment has not been much of a limitation on brutal sentences for minor crimes.  This is, to some extent, good news as well as bad.  While courts have proved, thus far, of only limited help in reining in collateral consequences and other criminal sanctions, legislatures are as unconstrained in repealing or mitigating them as they were in imposing them in the first place.  Legislators and voters, as well as students and lawyers, will be hard-pressed to justify our current system of CLCs after reading this book.

 

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