Legislative update: third quarter 2019 sees more new licensing and expungement laws

In July we reported on the extraordinary number of new laws enacted in the first half of 2019 aimed at restoring rights and status after arrest and conviction.  A total of 97 separate pieces of legislation, some covering multiple topics, were enacted by 38 states and many broke new ground in their jurisdictions.  Moreover, clear trends begun in 2018 accelerated in the first half of 2019, as state lawmakers continued to focus most of their attention on facilitating access to record-clearing.  In addition, a significant number of new laws limited the authority of occupational licensing boards to disqualify a person based on criminal record.  Another area of progress was restoring voting rights.

Those trends continued over the summer, with 17 new laws, including significant laws enacted to regulate occupational licensing and expand record relief, including but not limited to marijuana convictions.  Several states showed a keen interest in exploring the possibility of automating record relief, although only one state actually enacted an automatic relief system by the end of the quarter (New York, for marijuana convictions).  (California enacted a “clean slate” law shortly after the beginning of the fourth quarter.)  At the end of the third quarter, Arkansas, Colorado and Florida were studying the feasibility of automating relief, North Carolina was considering automatic expunction of non-conviction records, and the Governor of New Jersey was attempting to persuade his legislature to adopt an automated system for convictions as well as non-convictions.)

By the end of the third quarter of 2019, 42 states had enacted an unprecedented total of 114 laws restoring rights and status, and more new laws on the horizon.

All of the laws described briefly below are more fully analyzed in the context of the state’s overall restoration scheme, in the detailed profiles of the Restoration of Rights Project.

Occupational licensing

Florida and North Carolina enacted impressive occupational licensing schemes.  Florida’s new licensing provisions added by H7125 appear targeted to trades learned in the state prison system, and also provide that: “A conviction, or any other adjudication, for a crime more than 5 years before the date the application is received by the applicable board may not be grounds for denial of a [specified] license.”  Boards are permitted to consider violent and sexual offenses but only if they “relate to the practice of the profession.”  Starting on October 1, 2019, and updated quarterly thereafter, the boards must compile a list identifying each crime used as a basis for a license denial.

North Carolina’s new law prohibits disqualification from licensure unless a crime is “directly related” to the license involved, requires written reasons in the event of denial, and provides for a preliminary determination as to whether an individual will be favorably considered that is binding on the board when the applicant later applies.  The new law also requires licensing boards to report annually to the legislature on their consideration of applications from people with a criminal record.

In New Hampshire, HB 637 created two categories of criminal history information to be maintained by the state police records repository, one “confidential” and the other “public.”  “Confidential criminal history information” (defined to include non-conviction records and records of convictions that have been annulled) will no longer be disseminated for employment and licensing purposes.   

Sealing and expungement

Florida substantially reorganized its laws relating to sealing and expungement of non-conviction records in H7125, and the Department of Law Enforcement was directed to create an automatic process for sealing eligible non-conviction records.  See Fla. Stat. § 943.0595.

Four states (DE, HI, NH and NY) passed laws authorizing expungement or sealing of marijuana possession convictions.  Of these new laws, New York’s law setting up an automated relief system is by far the most significant, because it seals the record without requiring eligible individuals to apply to the court for relief.  Individuals whose records are sealed may, further, apply later to have the record destroyed.  As an important recent study by JJ Prescott and Sonja Starr established, where laws make relief depend upon a burdensome petition process, few eligible individuals will take advantage of them.  (As the third quarter ended, a far broader “clean slate” bill was poised for enactment in California, and was signed on October 7.)

Relatedly, in August, New Jersey’s governor Phil Murphy refused to sign a bill substantially expanding expungement in that state, which included but was not limited to marijuana convictions, on grounds that its cumbersome petition process did not go far enough in addressing the problem of dated convictions.  The governor cited with approval the “clean slate” law enacted by New Jersey’s neighboring state Pennsylvania, and proposed a series of measures aimed at developing a similar automated system in his state.  As of this writing, the governor has been unable to persuade the legislature to adopt it, but we may expect to see another pass at the problem before year’s end.

Two more states (HI and NC) expanded their provisions offering record relief to victims of human trafficking convicted of any non-violent offense linked to their victim status.

Civil rights

Finally, New Hampshire revised its law disqualifying people with a conviction from holding public office, making the restriction applicable only during actual incarceration, so that it is now coincident with the period of felony disenfranchisement (this limit on disenfranchisement to only during actual incarceration has been in place in the Granite State since 1965).

Perhaps more significant, HB 486 requires the commissioner of the department of corrections to ensure that probation/parole officers receive instruction on the current state of the law regarding the civil rights of individuals convicted of a felony, and to direct that individuals serving a suspended sentence or on parole receive “written notice that he or she may vote during the period of the suspension or parole.” Similar provisions were enacted earlier in the year in Colorado and Washington.  In our experience, many people who have been convicted of a felony believe that they cannot vote long after their rights have been restored – and some (like those in New Hampshire not sentenced to prison) never lost the right to vote in the first place.