“Advancing Second Chances: Clean Slate and Other Record Reforms in 2023”

At the beginning of each year since 2016, CCRC has issued a report on legislative enactments in the year just ended, describing and evaluating new laws aimed at reducing the barriers faced by people with a criminal record in the workplace, at the ballot box, and in many other areas of daily life. This year’s report, “Advancing Second Chances: Clean Slate and Other Record Reforms in 2023,” is now available.

Our annual legislative reports have documented the steady progress of what we characterized three years ago as “a full-fledged law reform movement” aimed at restoring rights and dignity to individuals who have successfully navigated the criminal law system. Between 2018 and 2022, more than 500 new record reforms were enacted by all but two states.  

Last year we reported that the legislative momentum had slowed somewhat, and this year it has slowed still further.  Only a handful of states enacted significant new record reforms in 2023, most in the form of new record-clearing schemes. We attribute this slowdown in part to how much has been accomplished in legislatures across the country in the past seven years. For example, more than half the states now allow people with a felony conviction to vote unless they are actually incarcerated, a number that has doubled since 2016.  In addition, most states have also taken steps to limit public access to some criminal records, and to ensure that employers and licensing agencies do not discriminate against people with a criminal history. Many have extended diversionary dispositions well beyond the class of first offenders who were uniquely eligible for non-conviction relief a decade ago. 

In 2023, 20 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government enacted 36 separate pieces of legislation and took executive action to restore rights and opportunities to people with an arrest or conviction history.

As in past years, more than half of the new laws in 2023 involved individual record clearing. Because of the significant progress on this front in recent years, many of the laws enacted in 2022 represent measured changes to existing record relief schemes rather than radical new reforms. Nonetheless, three states enacted major new automatic “clean slate” record schemes while others expanded eligibility for petition-based sealing. A handful of states continued to remove marijuana convictions from public view, and still other states trimmed barriers to relief by automating the application process, reducing waiting periods, or eliminating obstacles represented by outstanding court debt (fines and fees).

In addition, many of the new laws limited consideration of criminal records in economic settings, regulating employment and occupational licensing, or removing barriers to restoring a driver’s license.  The U.S. Small Business Administration took important steps toward eliminating restrictions in federally guaranteed loans.

Our sixth annual legislative report card (Reintegration Awards for 2023, reprinted below) recognizes the most productive legislatures in 2023, and notes that there are now only two states that have enacted no record reforms since our reporting began in 2016. As in the past, the state legislatures that have enacted the most significant reforms span the political spectrum, from Minnesota and New York to Louisiana and South Carolina.

Detailed analysis of most of these new laws is available in the state profiles from CCRC’s Restoration of Rights Project, with a national overview in our 50-state comparison charts on various types of record relief.

Reintegration Awards for 2023

While half a dozen states enacted noteworthy laws in 2023, one state stands out for the quantity and quality of its legislation: Minnesota is our 2023 Reintegration Champion for its passage of three major pieces of record reform legislation, and several other less significant yet still noteworthy laws.

  • Minnesota – Enacted four separate laws, one of which was an omnibus criminal justice bill that accomplished several entirely independent major record reforms. The omnibus bill enacted a significant expansion of the state’s statutory expungement scheme and made most of it automatic. It also accomplished a complete overhaul of the state’s pardon process to facilitate more grants. As part of a bill that legalized marijuana, it authorized automatic expungement of misdemeanor convictions and created a new board to review nonviolent felony convictions for potential expungement. If more were necessary, it limited felony disenfranchisement to a period of actual incarceration, capped sentences for gross misdemeanors to avoid immigration consequences, extended ban-the-box to multimember agencies, and further eased the drug felony ban on SNAP and TANF benefits.

Another six states and the District of Columbia earned an Honorable Mention for their enactment of at least one significant new record reform:

  • District of Columbia: DC replaced one of the most complex and restrictive record-clearing schemes in the country with an expansive one that makes all but the most serious felonies eligible for relief, and includes some automatic relief. Its major shortcoming is that it is presently not scheduled to take effect for several more years.
  • Maryland: Cut in half what were among the longest waiting periods in the country for record-clearing, from 10 years after completion of sentence to five years for misdemeanors and from 15 years to 7 years for felonies. Maryland also provided that any unpaid court fees or costs will not bar expungement, and made expungement of non-conviction records automatic.
  • New York: The Clean Slate Act substantially expanded sealing eligibility from a rather stingy maximum of two convictions (only one of which could be a felony) to all misdemeanors and all but the most serious felonies, without numerical limits, making New York’s automatic record-clearing law the broadest in the Nation by far. It also reduced some waiting periods.
  • New Mexico – Limited felony disenfranchisement to actual incarceration and encouraged registration during reentry; limited suspension of driver’s license due to unpaid court debt and allowed discharge of court debt through community service; and, extended automatic expungement of marijuana convictions to juvenile adjudications.
  • Ohio – Extended eligibility for sealing to additional categories of felonies, shortened waiting periods, authorized prosecutor-initiated sealing, and created a new authority for expungement after an additional waiting period. The law also authorized courts to seal the record of pardoned cases on the same basis as non-conviction records.
  • South Carolina – Significantly limited the discretion of the state’s licensing boards to deny licensure to people with criminal records. The law added new procedural protections for applicants with a record and prohibited boards from using arbitrary character determinations, non-conviction records, and convictions that do not “directly relate” to the license at hand, as a basis to disqualify applicants.

Low marks go once again to two of the states that enacted no record reform laws at all in 2023. While there are many other states in this category this year, the legislatures of Alaska and Wisconsin have earned their place at the bottom of the heap for having been equally unproductive since 2018, a period in which almost every other state passed at least some law limiting access to and use of criminal records.  Wisconsin’s one saving grace is the extraordinary record of pardoning by its governor:  Barely into his second term,Tony Evers has pardoned more than 1100 individuals, 833 in the last two years alone.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead to 2024, we are cautiously optimistic that even in a presidential election year there will be a continuing expansion of eligibility for record clearing, and reduction of access barriers like lengthy waiting periods, outstanding court debt and application-related costs. We also predict efforts to improve records management to accommodate automation of record clearance. We look for further facilitation of occupational licensing, an area where bipartisan reforms have benefitted from helpful model laws, and for efforts to support entrepreneurship by people with a criminal history. We have come a long way just in the past five years, but there is still a long way to go.