Organizations call on Congress to remove record-related barriers to small business relief

A bipartisan group of civil rights, advocacy, and business organizations, including CCRC, are calling on Congress to take immediate action to remove barriers based on arrest or conviction history for small business owners seeking COVID-19 federal relief.  This is an issue we have been covering in depth in recent posts.  This call to action—available in PDF and reprinted below—is issued by the following organizations (with additional sign-ons welcome; contact us here):

American Civil Liberties Union
Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights
Collateral Consequences Resource Center
College & Community Fellowship
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia
#cut50
Drug Policy Alliance
FreedomWorks
Georgia Justice Project
Interfaith Action for Human Rights
Jewish Council for Public Affairs
Justice & Accountability Center of Louisiana
Justice Action Network
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Main Street Alliance
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National Employment Law Project
Out For Justice
Public Interest Law Center
Reproductive Justice Inside
Root & Rebound
Safer Foundation
Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Women Against Registry

*Note: the letter was originally issued on April 10 and was last updated on April 17.

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Federal judge certifies class for landmark Florida felony voting trial

The monumental felony voting rights case in Florida moves another step forward, expanding in scope.  On Tuesday, the federal trial judge overseeing the case certified a class of all persons who have served sentences for felony convictions, who would be eligible to vote in Florida but for unpaid court debt.  With the trial scheduled to begin via remote communication on April 27, the decision enables the court to issue a ruling on the merits in time for the November election that would apply to the entire class of several hundred thousand (or more) potential Florida voters.

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11th Circuit declines to rehear decision upholding felony voting rights

Yesterday, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied Florida’s petition to rehear en banc a decision from a three-judge panel, which held on Feb. 19 that Florida may not deny the vote to people with felony convictions who have otherwise served their sentences, but may have outstanding court debt that they are unable to pay.

The panel decision concerns Florida’s 2018 ballot initiative Amendment 4, which restored the vote to state residents with felony convictions who have completed the terms of their sentence (murder and sex offense convictions are excluded).  The Florida Supreme Court held earlier this year that this required payment of fines, fees, and restitution.  The Eleventh Circuit panel, affirming a district court preliminary injunction, not only held that Florida may not deny the vote to those who can demonstrate that they are genuinely unable to pay outstanding court debt, but it also called into question the very requirement that legal financial obligations must be satisfied in order to regain the vote.  Our full discussion of that decision is included below.

Absent intervention by the Supreme Court, Florida will be now be required to 1) implement the lower court’s preliminary injunction (which affected only the 17 plaintiffs named in the lawsuit); and 2) return to the district court for further litigation to address the rights of all other similarly situated Floridians, in accordance with the seeming broader directive of the appeals court.

Yesterday’s decision sends a strong signal to the states that currently impose similar financial barriers to restoring the franchise to those who have otherwise served their sentences.  But it also suggests that states should reconsider the many other troublesome barriers that governments impose on people who have otherwise served their sentences and are looking to fully participate in society, but still carry outstanding court debt.  In this vein, we have recently written about the denial of small business loans and ineligibility for expungement of non-conviction records because of outstanding fines and fees.

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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.

11th Circuit upholds voting rights for Floridians unable to pay fines and fees

*Update (3/31/20): the Eleventh Circuit has denied Florida’s petition for rehearing en banc.

A decision yesterday from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is a major victory for voting rights and criminal justice reform advocates.  It has the potential to dramatically expand access to the ballot for people with felony convictions in Florida.  The decision concerns Florida’s 2018 ballot initiative Amendment 4, which restored the vote to state residents who have completed the terms of their sentence, which includes fines, fees, and restitution imposed by the court.  The appeals court’s decision held that Florida may not deny the vote to individuals who can demonstrate that they are genuinely unable to pay outstanding court debt.  The decision also called into question the very requirement that financial penalties must be satisfied in order to regain the vote under Amendment 4, and potentially similar requirements in several other states.

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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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New 2019 laws restore voting rights in 11 states

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

Restoration of Civil Rights

  1. Voting 

In 2019, eleven states took steps to restore the right to vote and to expand awareness of voting eligibility.  Our experience is that many people convicted of a felony believe they are disqualified from voting when they are not:  almost every state restores voting rights automatically to most convicted individuals at some point, if they are even disenfranchised to begin with.

The most significant new re-enfranchisement laws were enacted in Colorado, Nevada and New Jersey, where convicted individuals are now eligible to vote except when actually incarcerated.  Colorado restored the vote to persons on parole supervision, while Nevada revised its complex system for restoring civil rights so that all people with felony convictions may now vote except while in prison.  In one of the final legislative acts of 2019, New Jersey’s governor signed a law limiting disenfranchisement to a period of actual incarceration, even in cases where a court has ordered loss of the vote for election law violations, immediately restoring the vote to 80,000 people.  These three states joined the two states (New York and Louisiana) that in 2018 took steps to limit disenfranchisement to a period of incarceration:  New York’s governor issued the first of a series of executive orders under his pardon power restoring the vote to individuals on parole, and Louisiana passed a law allowing people to register if they have been out of prison for at least five years.

Now, only three of the 19 states that disenfranchise only those sentenced to prison still extend ineligibility through completion of parole:  California, Connecticut, and Idaho.  Bills under consideration in 2019 in both California and Connecticut would allow people to vote once they leave prison, though in California this will require a constitutional amendment.

Kentucky saw perhaps the most dramatic extension of the franchise in 2019, when its incoming governor Andy Beshear issued an executive order restoring the vote and eligibility for office to an estimated 140,000 individuals convicted of non-violent felonies who had completed their sentences.  Before the order, individuals were required to petition the governor individually to obtain restoration of their voting rights.  (Governor Beshear’s father had issued a similar order in 2015 at the end of his own term as governor, but it was revoked by his successor.)  Iowa is now the only state that does not restore the vote automatically to most convicted individuals at some point.

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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.

CCRC urges Supreme Court to reverse Iowa expungement decision

*Update 2: On November 25, 2019, the Supreme Court denied the petition.

*Update (11/1/2019):  On September 23, 2019, the Supreme Court asked Iowa to respond to the cert petition.  Iowa’s response is here.  The petitioner’s reply is here.

On September 9, we filed an amicus brief at the U.S. Supreme Court urging the justices to review and reverse a decision out of Iowa that upholds wealth-based barriers to expungement.  We were joined by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm.  At issue in the case is an Iowa law that bars a person from obtaining expungement of a dismissed or acquitted case if they owe any court fees in the case.  We point out the inequity of denying access to expungement based on socio-economic status:  “The irony of Iowa’s expungement law could not be clearer: a law that removes a hurdle to employment and economic security cannot be invoked by indigent individuals until outstanding costs and fees are paid to the state, effectively defeating the very purpose of providing expungement relief in the first place.”

This case arises from Jone Doe’s request in 2018 to expunge her dismissed criminal case from 2009.  But she still owes $550.38 for her court-appointed attorney, which she cannot afford to pay.  Doe argued the requirement to pay outstanding fees before obtaining expungement violates her equal protection rights under the constitution.  She pointed out that had she been able to hire a private attorney, she would be eligible for expungement, whether or not she owed attorney fees.  The lower court denied the request, finding that Doe “was made aware of reimbursing attorney fees and that expungement could not occur until all fees and assessed costs were paid.”  The Iowa Supreme Court, by a 4-3 vote, upheld the requirement, finding the state has a legitimate purpose “to encourage payment of court debt.”  On petition to the Supreme Court, we urge the Court to “grant certiorari and hold that one’s inability to pay court fees may not restrict access to statutorily-created expungement rights.”

We were represented by Ethan P. Fallon and Thomas M. Bondy of Orrick, Herrington, & Sutcliffe LLP, and appreciate their work on this case.  The full amicus brief is available here.

Florida gov asks state court to resolve felony voting dispute

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has opened up a new front in the legal battle in Florida over voting rights for people with felony convictions.  DeSantis is asking the state supreme court for an opinion on whether Amendment 4, passed by Florida voters in 2018, restores the vote for people with outstanding court-ordered fines and fees.  DeSantis signed a law passed by the legislature saying no, but that law is being challenged in federal court.

Amendment 4

Amendment 4 automatically restored the right to vote for people convicted of felonies, other than murder or sexual offenses, upon “completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.”   On June 28, 2019, DeSantis signed legislation (SB7066) that defines “completion of all terms of sentence” to include legal financial obligations (LFOs), including if a court has converted the LFOs to a civil lien.  Supporters of SB7066 point to a previous hearing before the Florida Supreme Court—regarding whether Amendment 4 should be on the 2018 ballot—where the Amendment’s sponsors told the Justices that completion of sentence includes court-ordered fines and costs.

In federal court, individuals and supporters of Amendment 4 have brought several challenges to SB7066 as violating the U.S. constitution on a variety of grounds.  One complaint argues that by disqualifying persons with outstanding LFOs, even if a person has no ability to pay and even if the court has converted an LFO to a civil lien, the law violates the Equal Protection and Due Process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment.  It also argues that the law burdens the fundamental right to vote, is an unconstitutional poll tax, infringes on free speech and association, and was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose.

UCLA law professor Beth Colgan recently published a survey of wealth-based penal disenfranchisement in the U.S.  She argues that while this widespread practice has been upheld in the lower courts under rational basis review, properly considered as a form of punishment it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Request for Opinion

On August 8, DeSantis filed a four-page letter asking the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in on the meaning of the amendment.  “I will not infringe on the proper restoration of an individual’s right to vote under the Florida Constitution,” DeSantis states, asking the justices for “your interpretation of whether ‘completion of all terms of sentence’ encompasses financial obligations, such as fines, fees and restitution (‘legal financial obligations’ or ‘LFOs’) imposed by the court in the sentencing order.”