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 on immigration consequences and driver’s license suspension

This is the fifth and final comment on new 2019 laws restoring rights or delivering record relief.  The laws included cover immigration consequences, driver’s licenses, pardon procedures, and several miscellaneous topics.  The full report on 2019 laws is available here.

Immigration consequences

In 2019, four states took steps enabling non-citizens charged with offenses to avoid deportation based on sentence or guilty plea.  Colorado, New York, and Utah capped prison sentences for misdemeanors at 364 days, to avoid mandatory deportation based on a one-year prison sentence, with the first two states giving the law retroactive effect.  New York also restricted the dissemination of certain criminal record information to federal immigration authorities.  Oregon revised its law on deferred judgments to prohibit guilty pleas that would trigger deportability.  Oregon also, along with Nevada, regulated the questioning of criminal defendants or detained individuals about their immigration status.

  • Colorado passed three laws aimed at mitigating the immigration consequences of conviction.   The first two relate to mandatory deportation for state misdemeanors carrying a potential one-year sentence.  See 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2).  To avoid this consequence, Colorado reduced the maximum jail sentence for various offenses from one year to 364 days. (HB 1148; HB 1263).  Colorado also authorized individuals to withdraw guilty pleas where they had pled guilty pursuant to a deferred adjudication or drug offense dismissal scheme, and thereby unknowingly exposed themselves to immigration consequences (federal immigration law treats such pleas as convictions, even though state law may not, see 8 U.S.C. §§ 1101(a)(48)(A), 1227(a)(2)) (S 30).
  • New York not only capped misdemeanor penalties at 364 days, but it gave the provision retroactive effect by authorizing resentencing in cases where the penalty originally imposed would result in “severe collateral consequences.”  (S 1505).  In addition, New York barred access by federal immigration authorities to some motor vehicle records, which may include criminal record information (A3675).
  • Utah reduced the maximum prison term for misdemeanors to “one year with a credit for one day,” but made no provision for retroactive application (HB 244).
  • Oregon removed a guilty plea requirement from the controlled substances diversion statute, making this benefit available to non-citizens without exposing them to deportation (HB 3201).  The law specifically provides that “[e]ntering into a probation agreement does not constitute an admission of guilt” and is “not sufficient to warrant a finding or adjudication of guilt by a court.”  As noted in the diversion section, however, the bill added a provision requiring defendants to agree to pay restitution to victims and court-appointed counsel fees as a condition of participation, with no provision for waiver.  Another new Oregon law prohibits a criminal court from inquiring about a defendant’s immigration status, and requires the court to allow a defendant additional time to consider a plea after being informed of immigration consequences (HB 2932).  Last year Oregon limited sentences for minor crimes to 364 days to avoid deportation (much as Colorado, New York and Utah did this year).
  • Nevada passed a law prohibiting anyone from questioning a person in a jail or other detention facility about their immigration status, unless they first informed the detainee of the purpose of the questioning (AB 376).

In addition, Indiana reduced selected misdemeanors to non-criminal civil infractions, taking them out ac riminal category, and avoiding immigration consequences (SB 336).

Driver’s License Suspension 

Six states repealed laws mandating suspension of a driver’s license for non-driving offenses.

  • Mississippi (HB 1352) and New York (S 1505) repealed provisions making loss of a driver’s license a mandatory penalty for a drug crime.
  • Montana (HB 217) and Virginia (HB 1700) repealed laws mandating suspension of a driver’s license for failure to pay court costs.
  • New Jersey addressed both of these issues, repealing provisions mandating suspension of driver’s licenses for conviction of drug and other crimes, and for failure to pay court debt (S1080).
  • Florida modified or deleted provisions for driver’s license suspension or revocation for underage tobacco and alcohol sales or consumption, misdemeanor theft, and drug crimes (HB 7125).Fla. Stat. §§ 569.11, 877.112, 562.11, 562.111, 812.0155, 322.055, 322.056.

In addition, Minnesota authorized cities and counties to create a driver’s license reinstatement diversion program (SF 8).

Housing discrimination

Illinois extended two laws, including its Human Rights Law, to bar private parties’ reliance on certain criminal records to deny housing.  Previously both laws applied only to employment.

  • Illinois barred housing discrimination through an amendment to its Human Rights Law to prohibit discrimination based on “arrest record” in any “real estate transaction,” including both rental and sale of real property. The term “arrest record” was defined to include non-conviction records, juvenile adjudications, and sealed or expunged convictions.  (SB1780).  (This same enactment also extended the Law’s employment discrimination provisions to non-conviction records, since the other categories of records were already covered.)
  • Illinois also extended the effect of its certificate of good conduct to lift mandatory licensing and housing bars, in additional to employment bars. (SB 3580).  However, a certificate of good conduct does not limit any employer, landlord, judicial proceeding, administrative, licensing, or other body, board, or authority from accessing criminal background information; nor does it hide, alter, or expunge the record.  Nor does the existence of a certificate of good conduct does not preclude a landlord or an administrative, licensing, or other body, board, or authority from retaining full discretion to grant or deny the application for housing or licensure.

Pardon procedure 

Nevada and South Dakota took steps to further streamline their already productive pardon systems.

  • The Nevada legislature proposes to repeal a requirement in the state constitution that the governor must approve all clemency grants by the Board of Pardons Commissioners, on which the governor sits as a member (SJR 1A). This proposal, which also requires the Board to meet at least quarterly, must be approved by popular vote in 2020.
  • The South Dakota legislature authorized a hearing panel of the Board of Pardons to make clemency recommendations to the governor, rather than the entire Board as under preexisting law. (HB1005).

Miscellaneous relief provisions

Among the more notable miscellaneous collateral consequences provisions enacted in 2019 is Utah’s new law giving courts new authority to terminate sex offender registration obligations, and loosening restrictions on driver’s licenses for people on the registry.  Another interesting new law is Connecticut’s establishment of a high-level study group to make recommendations on reducing various forms of discrimination based on criminal history.

  • Utah loosened restrictions on registered sex offenders, including rescinding a requirement that they renew driver’s licenses annually, expanding the number of offenses that qualify for removal from the registry after 5 years, and enacting a new provision authorizing the court to terminate registration after 10 years (HB298).
  • Connecticut established a “Council on the Collateral Consequences of a Criminal Record,” composed of high-ranking members of the legislature and the executive branch and representatives of advocacy groups and unions, and charged it with making recommendations by February 1, 2020, for legislation to reduce or eliminate discrimination based on criminal history (HB6921).
  • Louisiana relaxed restrictions on fostering and adoption for people with convictions (HB 112).
  • New York outlawed release of booking information and “mugshots” by police departments without a law enforcement purpose (S1505).

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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California poised to become third state to adopt “clean slate” record relief

On September 23, the California legislature sent AB 1076 to California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has until October 13 to sign or veto this potentially transformative legislation.  If enacted, AB 1076 would make California the third state (after Pennsylvania (2018) and Utah (2019)) to authorize “clean slate” record relief, a direction to authorities to seal certain arrest and conviction records automatically. (Illinois, New York, and California have enacted automatic relief for certain marijuana convictions, and several states have automatic relief for non-convictions.)  AB 1076 creates a parallel eligibility scheme that overlaps but is not exactly coincident with the petition-based system, as well as a new procedure for automatic relief.  The specific provisions are described generally below, and more fully after the break.

AB 1076 would not modify eligibility for relief under California’s existing scheme of judicial remedies for people with criminal records, via sealing as well as dismissal and set-aside.  Rather, effective January 1, 2021, it would create a new process obviating the requirement of an individually-filed petition or motion in most cases.  If this bill is signed into law, California would break new ground in becoming the first state to extend automatic “clean slate” relief to felony convictions (other than for marijuana possession).

A less-noted but significant feature of AB 1076 is its expansion of the effect of relief for conviction records:  it provides for non-disclosure of records of convictions that have been dismissed or set aside, whether automatically or by petition, and makes this provision applicable both to court records (effective February 1, 2021) and to records in the state repository (effective January 1, 2021), except in certain specified circumstances where disclosure is mandated by law.  As it is, and notwithstanding the widespread use of the term “expungement” to describe its general relief scheme for convictions, California has no law authorizing limits on public access to most conviction records, whether held by the court or by the state repository.  This would change in 2021, if this law is enacted.  (Most non-conviction records are now eligible for sealing by petition under California law.)  Note that, like most state repositories, California’s repository permits disclosure only to government agencies and specified private entities, so that the new limits apply within the class of otherwise authorized repository users.

The sponsors of AB 1076 emphasize that making relief automatic without the need for individual action will significantly reduce “barriers to employment and housing opportunities for millions of Californians.”  They point to the key findings of J.J. Prescott and Sonja Starr’s 2019 study of record-sealing in Michigan: 1) people who had their conviction records sealed tended to have improved employment outcomes and lower recidivism rates than the general population; but 2) only a small percentage (6.5%) of those individuals eligible for set-aside and sealing actually applied, likely because of the complexity and burdens of filing a petition for relief with the court.  While no comparable study has been done for California, experience with that state’s marijuana-sealing law suggests that the low “take-up” rate is similar to the one Prescott and Starr found in Michigan.

If California’s new law is enacted, beginning in 2021 the state will automatically grant relief for many arrests not resulting in conviction, for infraction and misdemeanor convictions, and for some less serious felony convictions.  For eligible non-convictions—misdemeanor and some felony arrests—sealing will become automatic.  (However, a significant set of felony arrests not leading to conviction are excluded, as discussed below, although most of these dispositions remain eligible for petition-based relief.)  For eligible convictions, dismissal and set-aside will be automatic provided that a number of additional eligibility requirements are satisfied, including that a person must not be required to register as a sex offender, or be currently subject to prosecution, supervision, or incarceration for any offense.  Prosecutors and probation officers may object to automatic conviction relief in individual cases on “based on a showing that granting such relief would pose a substantial threat to the public safety,” and such an objection may be tested in a court hearing.

A major shortcoming of AB 1076 — in contrast to the “clean slate” laws enacted in Pennsylvania and Utah—is that its automatic relief is prospective only.  That is, relief is automatic only for arrests and convictions occurring after the law’s effective date.  Those with arrests and convictions occurring before 2021 would still have to apply to the court for relief.  Though the original bill had applied retroactively, the Assembly amended the bill to exclude arrests and convictions occurring before January 1, 1973, and then the Senate further amended it to exclude those occurring before January 1, 2021.  Presumably these changes were based on financial and logistical considerations.  The annual cost for the California Department of Justice (DOJ) and courts to carry out the final bill is estimated to total between about $2 and $5 million each year.  Moreover, the bill’s effective date, January 1, 2021, is specifically subject to an appropriation in the annual budget, and the State’s Department of Justice has indicated it “would need the implementation date to be delayed to July 1, 2023 for proper implementation.”  Despite challenges in implementation, we hope that, as the new automated system is developed, it will be feasible to extend relief to records predating 2021.

Of course, as noted, the provisions providing for non-disclosure of conviction records would apply to all cases dismissed or set-aside, without regard to when or by what process this relief was granted.

We will now describe in detail California’s clean slate legislation, which would add two new sections to the Penal Code, 851.93 and 1203.425, dealing with arrests and convictions, respectively, and amend the section of the Penal Code that deals with state records systems, 11105.

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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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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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“High Time for Marijuana Expungement”

Any state that legalizes or decriminalizes marijuana should automatically include an expungement provision that clears the criminal record of individuals who engaged in activities deemed lawful under the new legalization or decriminalization laws.  This is the thesis of my new article, “High Time for Criminal Justice Reform: Marijuana Expungement Statutes in States with Legalized or Decriminalized Laws.”  At the federal level, Senator Cory Booker’s recently reintroduced Senate Bill 597, the “Marijuana Justice Act of 2019,” would do just that: remove marijuana from the Schedule of Controlled Substances and expunge records of marijuana possession and use convictions.  At the same time, some local governments are focusing on more efficient and expeditious expungement processes.  Earlier this year, the San Francisco District Attorney partnered with Code for America to identify and process eligible marijuana cases, including past convictions dating back to 1975.  The Denver District Attorney launched “Turn Over a New Leaf Program,” which helps individuals who committed now-repealed marijuana-related offenses vacate the records of their convictions.  While Colorado has a marijuana sealing statute (Col. Rev. Stat. § 24-72-710 allows sealing of misdemeanor marijuana possession or use offenses if an individual files a petition, pays a filing fee plus $65, and proves that the offense is no longer considered a crime), the New Leaf Program has attorneys from the Denver City Attorney’s Office guide individuals through the process and ask courts to vacate, dismiss, and seal convictions for marijuana offenses that are no longer illegal.

However—as I document in my article—of the ten states that have legalized, only four states have enacted marijuana-expungement legislation; of the thirteen states that have decriminalized marijuana, only three have enacted marijuana-expungement legislation.  My article includes charts compiling the status of expungement statutes in states that have legalized or decriminalized recreational marijuana and includes a model marijuana expungement statute.  My article draws on previous scholarship in this area by Professor Douglas Berman (Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices) and CCRC fellow David Schlussel (The Mellow Pot-Smoker: White Individualism in Marijuana Legalization Campaigns).

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Starr and Prescott publish groundbreaking empirical study of expungement

Professors Sonja B. Starr and J.J. Prescott of Michigan Law School have released the first-ever broad-based empirical study of the effects of a state law limiting public access to criminal records.   CCRC’s reports have noted the lack of empirical research to inform policies aimed at promoting reentry and reintegration for people with a criminal record—something this study of Michigan’s set-aside law begins to correct.  As its authors observe, “Despite the considerable legislative ferment and the excitement that surrounds ‘clean slate’ initiatives in the civil rights and criminal justice reform worlds, what has been missing from the debate is hard evidence about the effects and true potential of conviction expungement laws.”  A reason for this, as the authors also note, is that by definition criminal records that are the subject of sealing or expungement relief are often unavailable to study.  [Note:  In the summer of 2019, the study was accepted for publication in the Harvard Law Review.]

Using a data-sharing agreement with multiple Michigan state agencies, Starr and Prescott completed an extensive statewide analysis of expungement of criminal convictions in Michigan over the course of decades.  Their analysis reveals three key findings:

  • Uptake:  Just 6.5% of those eligible for expungement successfully complete Michigan’s application process within five years of eligibility.
  • Recidivism:  Expungement recipients “have extremely low subsequent crime rates, comparing favorably to the general population—a finding that defuses a common public-safety objection to expungement laws.”
  • Employment:  Expungement receipts see a “sharp upturn” in wage and employment: wages go up on average by 25% within two years, driven mostly by “unemployed people finding jobs and very minimally employed people finding steadier or higher-paying work.”

These conclusions just about cover the waterfront of findings we would most like to see about laws that limit public access to criminal records.  Looking at them in reverse order, Starr and Prescott find that expungement is valuable in economic terms for those who receive this relief, and improvements in their economic status will in turn benefit their families and communities.

They also find that those who benefit from expungement present no particular threat to public safety, whether because recipients of expungement are self-selected criminal justice success, because the courts that grant them relief take their likelihood of reoffending into account, or because expungement itself does not tend to increase recidivism risk (and in fact may reduce it).

Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, few of the people who are intended beneficiaries of Michigan’s expungement law actually obtain this relief, either because they don’t apply for it or because their applications for expungement are not approved.  The authors find six reasons that account for this “uptake gap” (which is greater for people with misdemeanors than felonies):

  • lack of information about the availability of relief;
  • administrative hassle and time constraints;
  • cost (including court filing fees, lost wages, and transportation costs);
  • distrust and fear of the criminal justice system;
  • lack of access to counsel; and
  • insufficient motivation to remove conviction.

In addition, while not a part of the “uptake gap” strictly speaking, the authors note that “every advocate that we spoke to also emphasized the stringency of the eligibility requirements, which in their view exclude a great many worthy candidates.”  (A person must have no more than one felony conviction and no more than two misdemeanor convictions in order to be eligible for “set-aside” under what is commonly known as the “general expungement statute.”  In contrast to most states, however, most felony convictions are eligible for set-aside.  A Michigan set-aside limits public access to the record, but it remains available to law enforcement and some other government agencies.  See the description of Michigan’s law providing for set-aside in the Michigan profile from the Restoration of Rights Project.)  The authors remark about the eligibility requirements for set-aside in Michigan:

All of these restrictions mean that the low uptake rate we estimated is even starker when viewed in context: it is a very small fraction of a very small fraction. For the past decade about two thousand set asides per year have been granted in Michigan. Meanwhile, each year the Michigan state courts add about 300,000 new criminal convictions. On balance, the population of people living with criminal records is continuing to grow quickly; the set-aside law is like a bucket removing water from an ever-rising ocean.

We note that Michigan’s eligibility requirements are actually more inclusive than those in most states.  See this 50-state chart.

We expect that the findings of this remarkable new study will prove uniquely valuable to advocates and policy-makers considering changes to laws authorizing relief from collateral consequences in the days and years ahead.

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