Restrictions on access to criminal records: A national survey

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.

Background

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.
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New research report: Four Years of Second Chance Reforms, 2013-2016

Introduction

4 year report coverSince 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.

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A second chance — if you can pay for it

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.

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Federal judges challenge collateral consequences

Federal judges have begun speaking out about the burdens imposed by severe collateral consequences and the limited ability of courts to mitigate the resulting harm.  This is particularly true in the Eastern District of New York, where some judges have openly lamented the lack of statutory federal expungement authority and have used their opinions and orders to call upon the legislature to ensure that those with criminal records are given a fair shot at success.  Among the more vocal critics of collateral consequences is recently retired Judge John Gleeson, who last year took the extraordinary step of expunging one woman’s criminal record despite acknowledged uncertainty about his authority to do so.  In another case, Judge Gleeson crafted an alternative more transparent form of relief, a federal “certificate of rehabilitation.”  (You can find our extensive coverage of these cases here).

In a new article titled “Judicial Challenges to the Collateral Impact of Criminal Convictions: Is True Change in the Offing?,” Nora Demleitner takes a look at how the criticisms of members of the federal bench may shape the framework in which second chance laws and policies are considered, both at the legislative and judicial level, and how they may or may not affect the prospect of significant reform.

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New role for veep: chief clemency adviser?

A forthcoming article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Policy argues that the federal pardon process ought to be restructured to make the vice president the president’s chief clemency adviser.  Paul Larkin of the Heritage Foundation proposes that pardon recommendations ought to be made by an board chaired by the vice president located in the Executive Office of the President.  This intriguing idea may appeal to the Trump Administration, particularly since the new vice president has had some experience with pardoning as governor of Indiana.

Here is the abstract of the article:

The need for reconsideration of the federal clemency process is a real one, and there is a consensus that the Justice Department should no longer play its traditional doorkeeper role. Using the vice president as the new chief presidential clemency adviser offers the president several unique benefits that no other individual can supply without having enjoyed a prior close personal relationship with the chief executive. Whoever is sworn into office at noon on January 20, 2017, as the nation’s 45th President should seriously consider using as his principal clemency adviser the person who was sworn into the vice presidency immediately beforehand. The president, clemency applicants, and the public might just benefit from that new arrangement.

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Expungement in Pennsylvania explained

imagesPennsylvania 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:

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Manslaughter plea vacated to avoid licensing bar

A former University of Maryland student who pled guilty last April to throwing a punch that resulted in the death of a fellow student, has been allowed the benefit of a nonconviction disposition that will likely result in the expungement of his record. According to a report in the Washington Post,

Prince George’s County Judge Albert W. Northrop ordered the manslaughter conviction of Arasp Biparva in the 2014 killing of Jack Godfrey vacated. The judge also granted Biparva probation before judgment, which means the charges can later be expunged from public records.

The modified sentence will help Biparva, 25, as he finds a job in accounting, according to his attorney.

“Currently the conviction will interfere with the application process and prevent Mr. Biparva from obtaining the certifications he needs to advance his career,” his attorney, Barry Helfand, said in a request for the modified sentence.

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Federal pardon filings skyrocket, but pardon grants still down

New clemency statistics just posted on the Pardon Attorney’s website show that almost 1000 petitions for full pardon were filed in FY 2016, and that more than 1900 pardon petitions are presently pending.   We have become accustomed to seeing huge numbers of commutation filings, but the large number of pardon filings is much more surprising in light of President Obama’s meager pardon grant rate to date.  The 998 petitions filed in the 12-month period just concluded are almost twice the number filed in any single year since the Roosevelt Administration, including in the analogous period in the Bush 43 presidency. We reported in August that there were 1378 pardon petitions pending in June – which means that 550 new petitions must have been filed in less than 4 months.  That’s as many pardon petitions as have been filed in any full year in the past 75 years.

In August we reported on President Obama’s stated intention to grant a large number of full pardons before the end of his term, in addition to sentence commutations: “I would argue that by the time I leave office, the number of pardons that we grant will be roughly in line with what other presidents have done.”  But to match even George W. Bush’s 189 pardon grants, President Obama will have to grant more than 120 pardons in the next three months.

White House Counsel Neil Eggleston stated yesterday that the number of commutation grants since 2014 “make clear that the President and his administration have succeeded in efforts to reinvigorate the clemency process.”  But without action on the pardon side of the clemency docket it is too early to claim more than partial success.

Indiana courts interpret new expungement law

On September 15, 2016, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s denial of expungement to a woman convicted 13 years before of forgery and drug-dealing, holding that the court abused its discretion in denying relief where the case fully met the statutory standards. The decision provides a window into how one of the Nation’s most expansive new expungement laws is being interpreted and enforced by the courts of the state. Judging by this decision, the approach to restoration of rights in this otherwise-conservative state remains encouraging.

Here is Olivia Covington’s article from the Indiana Lawyer reporting on the decision, with a link to its full text.

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Can the pardon power be revived through procedural reforms?

Mark Osler has posted a new piece arguing for an overhaul of the federal pardon process so that it more closely resembles efficient and productive state clemency systems. He argues that flaws in the process for administering the power, rather than a failure of executive will, have prevented President Obama from carrying out his ambitious clemency agenda directed atlong-sentenced drug offenders.  Streamlining the process will enable presidents to use the power more generously and effectively.

This seems to us to an oversimplified solution to the theoretical and practical problems with what President Obama has been trying to do. Moreover, at least in the absence of constitutional amendment, any structural changes in the federal pardon process would have to be reaffirmed by each new president, and would likely be opposed by the Justice Department and Congress.

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