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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Collected resources on record restrictions for small business relief

On this page, we have collected a variety of materials on the restrictions related to arrest or conviction imposed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) on small business owners seeking relief under the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.  Included are letters from legislators and major organizations, articles by us and by others, and official documents related to this issue.  We hope these resources will assist those working to ensure that much-needed relief is made fairly available to small business owners and their employees.  We continue to update this page with new resources (last updated May 27).

On April 21, Secretary Mnuchin seemingly closed the door on the SBA making any changes to its exclusionary policies at this time, but we encourage him to reconsider.  But there is no reason why the SBA cannot at any time rescind the new restrictions in its Interim Final Rule for the Paycheck Protection Program, as we advocate with 25 other organizations in our public comment on the SBA’s Interim Final Rule.  We also encourage Congress to curtail the SBA’s authority to unfairly deny relief to small businesses struggling to survive this crisis.

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Is SBA denying disaster relief based only on an arrest?

In response to COVID-19, Congress created the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and expanded the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars across these programs to assist small businesses affected by the pandemic and economic crisis.  As we have been pointing out in this space over the past five weeks, the Small Business Administration (SBA), which administers both programs, has imposed broad restrictions on access to relief based on arrest or conviction history, restrictions that were neither required nor contemplated by Congress.[1]

Until now, attention has been focused on small business owners unfairly denied PPP relief based on their record.  Members of Congress and major organizations have written in opposition to PPP regulations and policies that impose barriers based on a record, and dozens of media outlets have covered the issue.  But the EIDL disaster relief program has largely gone under the radar, in part because the SBA has not published guidance about how it is treating EIDL applicants with a record.

In a new development, documents posted anonymously on Reddit last week, and published by Law360 on May 3, purport to be internal SBA guidance for reviewing EIDL applications.  The documents instruct agency staff to deny relief to applicants if they have ever been arrested, unless the arrest was for a misdemeanor and occurred more than 10 years ago.  These leaked documents, also covered in detail by Entrepreneur this morning, would suggest that behind the scenes the SBA is imposing even greater record-related restrictions on COVID-19-related disaster relief than on PPP loans.

Upon review, we believe that this new information about the record-related standards being applied by the SBA to EIDL loans is likely correct.  We have heard from readers who were denied EIDL relief after SBA staff asked them questions over email about their arrest history, questions that correspond exactly to those in the leaked documents.  An SBA spokesperson, given an opportunity to correct the record if it needed correcting, declined to confirm or deny the information.

We have never see a government program in the United States with such broad and arbitrary restrictions based on criminal history.  The purported EIDL guidance is devoid of nuance: it instructs staff to deny relief based on arrest history regardless of offense and regardless of whether the arrest resulted in prosecution, much less conviction.  The look-back period is limitless for felony arrests and a full decade for misdemeanor arrests.  The guidance inevitably produces unwarranted disparities: a person with a decades-old felony arrest that was never charged, or whose arrest resulted in an acquittal, is treated more severely than someone with a more recent misdemeanor conviction.  Finally, the guidance cannot be squared with existing published SBA policies, as discussed below.

In normal times, a sweeping and secretive restriction on disaster relief would be problematic.  In this global public health and economic crisis, it is inexcusable.

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Mnuchin defends record restrictions for SBA stimulus loans

We have written much in recent days about how the SBA has imposed new restrictions on participation in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) by small business owners with a record of arrest or conviction.  We were therefore surprised to hear Secretary Mnuchin at the White House press briefing yesterday assert that the new SBA rules are actually more favorable to this population than the old ones.  That is simply not true.

Prior to enactment of the CARES Act, the SBA’s rules for its 7(a) loan program—of which the PPP is the newest part—disqualified only people with open criminal cases.  People with past records were subject to an individual evaluation.  In launching the PPP, the SBA imposed entirely new mandatory disqualifications that were neither part of SBA’s preexisting regulations nor required by the CARES Act.  New PPP rules and policies prohibit loans to any small business owner who, in the past five years, had a felony conviction, plea, or was placed on probation, parole, or diversion, even without a conviction.

Yet at a press conference yesterday following Senate approval of additional PPP funds, Mnuchin claimed exactly the opposite.  Responding to a question about the President’s comment the day before that he would look into the issue of people with records being denied access to small business loans, the Secretary stated that he had “worked with the White House” to “specifically design” the PPP program to reflect criminal justice reform efforts led by Jared Kushner and others in the Trump Administration.  As a result, he said, the new five-year disqualification period is “significantly shorter than what had been done before . . . . There were a lot of people who wouldn’t have had access previously and we changed those regulations.”  (The clip is here, starting at 7:38; a transcript is below.)

The Secretary’s explanation is so wildly off the mark that it is hard to believe he was simply misinformed.  More likely, he was reporting on how the SBA’s 7(a) loan program has been administered in practice, unwittingly revealing an unwritten policy of categorical exclusion in spite of formal policies calling for individual review.  That peek at how a risk-averse bureaucracy actually operates out of the public eye would be no surprise to people who have experienced it.

In the run-up to the drafting of the new stimulus bill, several bipartisan coalitions and policy experts urged Congress and the SBA to ensure that  justice-involved people who have started small businesses—and their employees—can obtain stimulus funds.  But Mnuchin yesterday seemed to shut that door: “For now, we’re not going to do that.”

We strongly encourage the Secretary to take another look, and to do it quickly, before the new PPP funds are authorized and distributed.  As Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation wrote in this space yesterday, “During this trying time, the SBA must reexamine these regulations to ensure that small businesses that made the most of one second chance don’t have it taken away through no fault of their own.”

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Second Chance Small Businesses Deserve Another Chance

As America prepares to get back to work, will some people be left behind? The Small Business Administration (SBA) has adopted rules for emergency COVID-19 loans that exclude otherwise eligible existing small businesses from relief solely because they are owned in part by individuals who have a criminal record. Given that at least 19 million Americans have a felony record, this overly broad exclusion threatens to unfairly deny a lifeline to deserving small businesses and their employees.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that was part of the $2 trillion relief legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Trump provides loans to small businesses that are forgivable if the business retains its employees during the period of at least eight weeks. While the legislation was vague on exclusions based on criminal background, the guidance adopted on April 2 by the SBA is overly broad, going far beyond excluding only those who have committed  offenses related to financial dishonesty such as bank fraud or extremely serious offenses such as rape and murder.

Among those excluded are small business in which an owner of 20 percent or more is currently facing charges for any offense, is currently on community supervision, or has been convicted of a felony in the last five years. For several reasons, this disqualifying language casts a much wider net than necessary.

First, simply because an individual is facing charges does not mean they are guilty. Indeed, some 20 percent of those arrested ultimately have their case dismissed or are acquitted.

Additionally, the current criteria exclude existing small businesses that are owned in part by the 4.5 million Americans on community supervision, which encompasses probation and parole. Yet initiatives like the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) have helped many Americans with a record become successful business owners.

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SBA has no excuse for excluding people with a record from stimulus relief

Some federal officials have claimed in recent days that the government is required to bar people with a criminal record from emergency loans under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) either by the CARES Act or by preexisting SBA rules.  Neither assertion is true.

There is nothing in federal law, including the CARES Act, that requires the Small Business Administration (SBA) to disqualify small businesses from applying for PPP loans based on an owner’s past arrest or conviction history.  Prior to enactment of the CARES Act, the SBA’s rules disqualified only people with open criminal cases from the 7(a) loan program of which the PPP is the newest part.  Yet in launching the PPP, the SBA inexplicably decided to impose entirely new record-related restrictions on a population that is already severely disadvantaged: the new PPP rules and accompanying application forms prohibit loans to any small business owner convicted of a felony within the past five years, or placed on probation or parole during that time, even if all court-imposed penalties have been fully satisfied.  In fact, the SBA even disqualifies people whose felony charges never led to a conviction, but instead were dismissed after completion of pretrial diversion.

Our one-pager, “At a Glance: Barriers to the Paycheck Protection Program (‘PPP’) Based on Arrest or Conviction,” available in PDF and included below, explains the new barriers to relief under the PPP as well as preexisting barriers under the 7(a) program.

The SBA’s new policy, which comes at perhaps the worst possible time for struggling small businesses, cannot be squared with recent Congressional efforts to support people with past justice involvement in their efforts to reintegrate into the community, by enabling them to compete fairly for federal employment and contracts.  Eligibility requirements for federal relief should be relaxed in these circumstances, not made more restrictive as the SBA has done.  A coalition of conservative groups today urged in a letter to Senator McConnell that Congress take steps to roll back this counterproductive SBA policy, joining advocates who wrote last week directly to the federal executive officials most directly responsible for it.  We hope Congress will curb the SBA’s authority to discriminate against small business owners with a record in its new stimulus package.

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Legalizing marijuana and expunging records across the country

As the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana has now reached a majority of the states, the expungement of criminal records has finally attained a prominent role in the marijuana reform agenda.  Laws to facilitate marijuana expungement and other forms of record relief, such as sealing and set-aside, have now been enacted in more than a dozen states.  Most of these laws cover only very minor offenses involving small amounts of marijuana, and require individuals to file petitions in court to obtain relief.  But a handful of states have authorized streamlined record reforms that will do away with petition requirements and cover more offenses.  In the 2020 presidential race, Democratic candidates have called for wide-ranging and automatic relief for marijuana records.

Given these important developments that we expect will continue in the present legislative season, we have put together a chart providing a 50-state snapshot of:

(1) laws legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana;

(2) laws that specifically provide relief for past marijuana arrests and convictions, including but not limited to conduct that has been legalized or decriminalized; and

(3) pardon programs specific to marijuana offenses.

We hope this tool will help people assess the current state of marijuana reform and work to develop more expansive, accessible, and effective record relief.

As of this writing, 26 states, D.C., and one territory have legalized or decriminalized marijuana to some degree.  Eleven states and D.C. have done both.  Seventeen states and D.C. have enacted expungement, sealing, or set-aside laws specifically for marijuana, or targeted more generally to decriminalized or legalized conduct.  Four states have pardon programs for marijuana offenses.  Our 50-state chart documenting these laws is available here.  We will update this chart to cover new legislative developments as they occur.  For example, just this week both chambers of the Virginia legislature passed a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and limit access to records of such offenses.

This comment describes some of the history of marijuana decriminalization, legalization, and expungement reforms, recent trends, and the current state of the law in this area.  It attempts to provide evidence for what Professor Douglas A. Berman recently described as the “linking and leveraging” of the marijuana reform and expungement movements.

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Automatic expungement falls short in Canada

The John Howard Society of Canada has a new post about a failed piece of Canadian legislation that would have provided automatic expungement of criminal records in that country.  The post describes the effort to remedy the shortcomings of the current “one-at-a-time” record-clearing system, which it says is expensive (more than $600 to apply), bureaucratic, and “systematically works against poor and marginalized people.”  As an example, it documents Canada’s serious “takeup” problem with its recent efforts to clear cannabis possession convictions: “despite the government’s claims of an enhanced process to grant pardons for cannabis possession now that it is legal, only a handful of the 250,000 or so Canadians with such records have received pardons so far.”

The post also discusses our report documenting U.S. expungement reforms in 2019, noting that while the problem of criminal records in this country is “much greater” than it is in Canada, we seem to be making better progress in dealing with it.

We reprint the introduction to the post below, and link to the piece.

Expunging criminal records

February 26, 2020

Last year Senator Kim Pate introduced a bill that would provide automatic expungement of criminal records in Canada.  Under this bill, criminal records would automatically be sealed after a certain amount of time had elapsed following a criminal sentence unless there had meanwhile been a new criminal charge or conviction.

Expungement of criminal records is important because a criminal record has many harmful effects for a person’s entire lifetime, even decades after the end of their sentence.  It is important to keep in mind that 3-4 million Canadian adults, or about 1 in 8, has a criminal record of some kind.  Wherever you live in Canada, you likely have neighbours with a record.  But, as another post on this blog showed, most people never commit a second crime, and this likelihood declines with every year that passes.

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New Jersey steps out as Reintegration Champion of 2019

Editors’ note: CCRC recently released its report on 2019 criminal record reforms, which recognized New Jersey as the “Reintegration Champion” of 2019, for having the most consequential legislative record of any state in the past year.  The following comment describes New Jersey’s laws enacted in 2019.  New Jersey’s various restoration of rights laws are further described in the state’s profile in the CCRC Restoration of Rights Project.

In December 2019, Governor Phil Murphy signed into law S4154, now L.2019, c.269, as part of his Second Chance Agenda.  The law is a strong step towards criminal justice reform, and places New Jersey on the map as a leader in expungement policy.  Along with easing access to the existing expungement process,  it creates a new “clean slate” system that provides for expungement of all but the most serious violent offenses after ten years. It additionally sets in motion a process aiming to automate all clean slate expungements.  The substantive provisions of the law are set to go into effect on June 15, 2020, and we anticipate a large increase in expungements following its implementation.

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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.

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