50-state guide to expungement and sealing laws

The 50-state chart of judicial relief mechanisms from the NACDL Restoration of Rights Resource, which is also posted on this site, is a comprehensive survey of all authorities for judicial relief in the states and federal system. We wanted to bring it to our readers’ attention in light of the new federal interest in helping individuals with a criminal record overcome barriers to employment and licensing through clearing their records.

The National Clean Slate Clearinghouse, recently announced as part of President Obama’s reentry initiative, will “provide technical assistance to local legal aid programs, public defender offices, and reentry service providers to build capacity for legal services needed to help with record-cleaning, expungement, and related civil legal services.” This joint project of the Labor and Justice Departments will doubtless make it a first priority to survey the laws providing judicial and other relief in different states, to determine what sort of assistance lawyers will need to neutralize the adverse employment consequences of conviction, though the courts or otherwise.  We hope these resources will prove useful in that effort.

Note that terminology and procedure differ significantly from state to state, so that those interested in more specific information about the scope, operation and effect of a particular state’s laws should consult the state-by-state profiles accessible through the Resources tab on the home page of this site.  For example, while the term “expungement” may involve destruction of records in a few states (e.g., Pennsylvania), more frequently it means a limited restriction on public access to records.  For example, in Kansas certain employers and licensing agencies continue to have access to criminal records notwithstanding an expungement order from the court.  In Indiana “expungement” entails no limit of public access at all — although some records may be sealed after expungement.  In some states a judicial set-aside or vacatur involves a sealing of the record (e.g., Michigan, Washington) but in others it doesn’t (e.g., California).  Most jurisdictions authorize sealing or expungement of non-conviction records upon petition to the court.

In the past few years a number of states have modified their provisions for sealing or expungement of records, but most of these new laws reach only minor offenses or non-conviction records, and frequently involve long eligibility waiting periods that defeat their usefulness for reentry purposes. Conspicuous exceptions are the comprehensive new judicial relief schemes enacted in Indiana and Minnesota, and Arkansas‘ reorganization and expansion of its existing expungement laws. A few states, notably Kansas and Utah, have broad expungement laws dating from the 1970s.

Note that there is no statute providing for expungement of federal convictions, and almost no authority to limit access to non-conviction records — a circumstance that has led several federal sentencing courts to consider expungement through their ancillary jurisdiction. The most well-known of these cases is U.S.v. Jane Doe, now on appeal in the Second Circuit, in which Judge John Gleeson ordered expungement of a fraud conviction of a woman he had sentenced 13 years before.  (Briefs in the Doe case are available here.)