The following is a summary of how the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) applies to criminal background checks, written by Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. More detailed information about FCRA’s interpretation and enforcement is available in this 2011 FTC report. Current information about FCRA’s enforcement as applied to criminal records will appear in the upcoming third edition of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction: Law Policy and Practice.
Where a criminal record report is provided to an employer by a credit reporting agency (“CRA”), the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq, is applicable. See Beaudette, FTC Informal Staff Opinion Letter, June 9, 1998 (available here). FCRA creates obligations both on CRAs preparing criminal background reports and on employers using them.
Among the duties of CRAs compiling criminal background reports for employers are the following:
- CRAs may not report arrests or other adverse information (other than convictions of crimes) which are more than seven years old, provided that the report does not concern employment of an individual who has an annual salary that is $75,000 or more. 15 U.S.C. §§ 1681c(a)(5), 1681c(b)(3).
- CRAs must use “reasonable procedures” to insure “maximum possible accuracy” of the information in the report. 15 U.S.C. §1681e(b).
- Elements of cause of action: (1) Inaccurate information in report; (2) inaccuracy due to CRA’s failure to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy; (3) consumer suffered injury (can include emotional injury); and (4) injury was caused by inaccurate entry. Crane v. Trans Union, 282 F. Supp. 2d 311 (E.D. Pa. 2003)(Dalzell) (citing Philin v. Trans Union Corp., 101 F. 3d 957, 963 (3d Cir. 1996)).
- A CRA reporting public record information for employment purposes which “is likely to have an adverse effect on the consumer’s ability to obtain employment” must either notify the person that the public record information is being reported and provide the name and address of the person who is requesting the information at the time that the information is provider to the user or the CRA must maintain strict procedures to insure that the information it reports is complete and up to date. 15 U.S.C. §1681k.
This is the title of an important new article published by Alessandro Corda in the Howard Law Journal proposing a radical way of addressing the malign social impact of our current policies on public access to arrest and conviction records. Corda traces the evolution of record dissemination policies and practices since the 1950s, contrasting the American and European experience where “informal collateral consequences” are concerned. He critiques “partial remedial measures” like expungement and certificates of rehabilitation, and argues for making publication of a defendant’s record an “ancillary sanction” ordered (or not) by the court at sentencing.
While this solution may at first blush seem a bit ambitious, there are states (like Wisconsin) whose sentencing courts can offer the promise of set-aside and expungement upon successful completion of sentence, and that is indeed how the federal Youth Corrections Act operated before its repeal in 1984.
At the very least, Corda makes a convincing case that strong measures are necessary to mitigate the permanent stigma of a criminal record in the information age. The historical and international material will be of particular value to those currently working on this problem in legislatures across the country. Here is the abstract:
For the first time in its history, Montana has enacted a law authorizing its courts to limit public access to adult conviction records. On April 13, Governor Steve Bullock signed into law House Bill 168, giving district courts the power to “expunge” the records of misdemeanor convictions after completion of sentence, effective October 1 of this year. This makes Montana the 30th state since 2012 to enact some form of record-closing law, or to expand an existing one. The possibility of full destruction of the record for all misdemeanor convictions makes Montana’s one of the more ambitious collateral consequences reform measures of the past several years.
Second-chance mechanisms in California are working to increase the employment prospects and earning potential of Californians with criminal records according to a soon-to-be-published study by a team of researchers from U.C. Berkeley School of Law.
The study, by Jeffrey Selbin, Justin McCrary & Joshua Epstein, tracked over an eleven-year period the employment status and annual income of 235 Californians who had their convictions set aside or their offense level reduced from felony to misdemeanor, with the aid of the East Bay Community Law Center’s (EBCLC) Clean Slate Clinic. The study finds a modest increase in the employment rate of those in the sample (most were already employed, albeit in low-wage jobs). More significantly, however, after three years their average real earnings increased by roughly a third.
A new nation-wide study of “ban-the-box” policies in public employment finds that they have been generally effective in increasing employment opportunities for people with a criminal record. Significantly, the study finds no evidence that these policies encourage reliance on racial stereotyping where public employment alone is concerned — though the author acknowledged, in an interview with the CCRC, that “the evidence is mixed” when private employment is also considered.
“Ban-the-box” policies, which delay employer inquiries about an applicant’s background until a later stage in the hiring process, have become a popular reform measure at least in part because it can be implemented on a systemic basis. As of January 2017, there were 25 states, DC, and over 150 municipalities that had adopted ban-the-box policies, most of them applicable only to public sector employment. But despite the increase in ban-the-box policies, little research has been done into their effectiveness in improving the employment prospects of justice-involved individuals. Some jurisdictions such as Atlanta, GA and Durham, NC have reported dramatic improvements in the percentage of convicted individuals hired. However, these local outcomes may not reflect the national experience.
Research on the effects of ban-the-box policies by Connecticut College economist Terry-Ann Craigie suggests that they have dramatically improved the public-sector employment prospects of individuals with a criminal record nation-wide. Professor Craigie also found that these salutary effects have generally not been offset by a corresponding increase in racial profiling. Overall, her study (whose results are not yet published) concludes that ban-the-box policies have increased the odds of getting a public sector job for those with a criminal record by close to 40%.
We have recently revised and brought up to date the 50-state chart comparing laws on judicial sealing and expungement. This chart provides an overview of the national landscape of laws authorizing courts to restrict public access to criminal records. The chart summaries are illustrated by color-coded maps, and explained in greater detail in the state “profiles” of relief mechanisms that have been part of the Restoration of Rights Resource since that project began in 2004. We hope this research will provide a useful tool for civil and criminal practitioners, policy advocates, and government officials.
A brief overview of research methodology and conclusions follows.
A criminal record severely restricts access to many opportunities and benefits that can be indispensable to leading a law-abiding life. Unwarranted discrimination based on criminal record was recognized as an urgent public policy problem by President Obama when he established the National Clean Slate Clearinghouse. In the past decade, as the collateral consequences of conviction have increased in severity, state legislatures across the country have been actively exploring ways to set reasonable limits on the use of criminal records for noncriminal justice purposes, consistent with public safety. One of the most popular measures involves restricting public access to criminal records through measures most frequently described as “expungement” or “sealing.” Our recent report on “second chance” legislation identified 27 states that just since 2013 have given their courts at least some authority to limit access to records.
At the same time, however, judicial authority to close the record of concluded criminal cases remains quite limited, with only a dozen states authorizing their courts to restrict public access to a substantial number of felony convictions. The fact that nine of these 12 states have had broad sealing schemes in place for many years underscores how difficult it is to make much legislative progress in a risk-averse environment where criminal background checking has become big business.
Since 2013, almost every state has taken at least some steps to chip away at the negative effects of a criminal record on an individual’s ability to earn a living, access housing, education and public benefits, and otherwise fully participate in civil society. It has not been an easy task, in part because of the volume and complexity of state and federal laws imposing collateral consequences. To encourage employers and other decision-makers to give convicted individuals a fair chance, some states have enacted or modified judicial restoration mechanisms like expungement, sealing, and certificates of relief. Others have extended nondiscrimination laws, limited criminal record inquiries, and facilitated front-end opportunities to avoid conviction.
In partnership with the NACDL Restoration of Rights Project, the CCRC maintains a comprehensive and current state-by-state guide to mechanisms for restoration of rights and status after conviction. As a part of keeping that resource up to date, we have inventoried measures enacted and policies adopted by states in the past four years to mitigate or avoid the disabling effects of a criminal record, and present it here as a snapshot of an encouraging national trend.
The surest way to avoid the collateral consequences of conviction is to avoid conviction in the first place. Pre-trial diversion programs offer defendants a chance to do just that, by having the charges against them dismissed before they even reach court. But there is often a catch that puts this benefit out of reach for those of limited means.
Diversion programs are controlled by prosecutors, who may condition dismissal of charges on the defendant’s participation in educational, rehabilitation, or community service programs for which the defendant must foot the bill. These costs, along with attendant administrative fees set by prosecutors, can price out many of the low-income defendants who stand to benefit most from the second chance that diversion promises. Even if defendants can come up with the necessary cash for participation, they may find the promised relief illusory. Because prosecutors have near total control over the programs, deciding who is eligible and what is required, defendants must first convince prosecutors that they are worth taking a chance on before the opportunity will be offered.
An illuminating two-part expose’ in last week’s New York Times (“No Money, No Mercy“) takes a close look at how these programs operate, and the fate of defendants who have worked to earn a second chance but find themselves ultimately unable to afford it or benefit from it. Since prosecutorial control of the programs obscures their operation to a large extent, The Times “gathered information, statutes and fee schedules on 225 diversion programs in 37 states and interviewed more than 150 prosecutors, defense lawyers, defendants and experts,” to develop a sobering national overview. The piece documents how the burden of a criminal record is imposed disproportionately and unfairly on people of color and limited means through unreviewable decisions of prosecutors, effectively re-creating the peonage that replaced slavery immediately after the Civil War.
You can read The Times’ full expose, “After a Crime, the Price of a Second Chance,” here. The second part of the series focuses on Dothan County, Alabama to detail some of the more egregious racial and class inequities that result from high fees and prosecutorial control. See “Alabama Prosecutor Sets the Penalties and Fills the Coffers,” linked here. A follow-up piece published on January 6 (“Forcing a District Attorney’s Hand”) documents the difficulties experienced by the Times reporter and photographer in obtaining the Dothan County story. The Times published a Letter to the Editor commenting on the series by CCRC Executive Director Margaret Love.
We summarize the broad points of the series below, but highly recommend reading it in full.
The revolving door between prison and homelessness is an unfortunate and well-documented feature of our criminal justice system. But it is not just those returning from prison who are at risk. Even a conviction for a relatively minor offense – and, in some instances, simply being charged with one – can result in a lifetime of housing insecurity, both for individuals and their families. These problems are the focus of an excellent new report from the National HIRE Network that examines criminal record-based housing restrictions across the country and describes what is being done by a few jurisdictions and the federal government to put the brakes on the cycle of conviction, homelessness, and recidivism.
Although record-based housing restrictions are implemented by both private and public housing providers, it is public housing restrictions that pose the biggest risk to individuals with criminal records since their statistically lower income makes them more likely to rely on federal subsidies for housing. Attached to those subsidies are a number of federally-mandated restrictions, including a permanent and automatic ban for anyone convicted of producing methamphetamine in public housing or of a sex offense requiring lifetime registration, and permissible eviction followed by a three-year bar (that may be reduced) for drug-related criminal activity.
But, as the report discusses, those federal restrictions are just the beginning. Federal law explicitly permits subsidized housing providers to reject applicants if a household member has engaged in criminal activity that is violent, drug-related, or that “would adversely affect the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises” and that was committed within a “reasonable time” before applying. That loose standard gives providers enormous discretion to determine who gets in and who gets shut out:
Pennsylvania has been active in recent years in expanding its judicial relief mechanisms, though it still has a long way to go to catch up to states like Kentucky, Missouri, and New Jersey, which have in the past 12 months extended their expungement laws to some felonies and/or reduced waiting periods. No one has been more active and effective in the effort to increase the availability of “clean slate” judicial remedies than Sharon Dietrich, Litigation Director for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. Sharon has written a comprehensive guide to existing authorities on expungement and sealing in her state, which also discusses pending bills that would extend these laws. The abstract follows: