Numerous studies have demonstrated how Black Americans are treated more harshly at every stage of the criminal legal system—from over-policing to overcharging to more punitive sentencing. New research from California shows how eligibility limitations on criminal record relief perpetuate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and have a disproportionately adverse effect on Black Americans.
The study, by Alyssa Mooney, Alissa Skog, and Amy Lerman, and published in Law & Society Review, examined recent legislative changes to criminal record relief laws in California, one of the first states to automate relief. The study assessed the equity of California’s existing automatic record relief laws by examining the share of people with criminal records who are presently eligible for automatic record clearing, and variations across racial and ethnic groups.
Editor’s Note: We are delighted to post a description of the broad new record relief bill now awaiting Governor Northam’s signature, by an attorney-advocate who was actively involved in the campaign to secure its passage. Rob Poggenklass describes the ambitious new law and how it came to be enacted, as well as likely next steps for record clearance in a jurisdiction that is swiftly becoming one of the nation’s leaders in record reforms. In addition to automatic sealing, the bill’s provisions for appointment of counsel, elimination of a fingerprint requirement for petitions, and regulation of private screening companies are particularly significant for reducing access barriers and ensuring effectiveness.
The Virginia General Assembly has passed transformative legislation to allow sealing of convictions, including low-level felonies, for the first time in the Commonwealth, and to establish a system of automatic sealing of police and court records for many offenses. About 1.6 million Virginians have a criminal record, which creates significant barriers to employment, housing, education, and other necessities of life.
The legislation reflects a compromise between an automatic expungement bill sponsored by Del. Charniele Herring and a mostly petition-based one brought by Sen. Scott Surovell. It also reflects the sustained work of directly impacted individuals and other advocates who organized and insisted on far-reaching, automatic, and equitable expungement legislation.
The legislation must be signed by Governor Ralph Northam before it becomes law, but the governor is expected to sign it. After the House and Senate could not agree on record sealing legislation during a special session in the fall of 2020, the governor hired a mediator to help negotiate the compromise bill that passed both chambers in 2021.
The legislation includes five key provisions. The bill:
- Establishes a system of automatic sealing for misdemeanor non-convictions, nine types of misdemeanor convictions, and deferred dismissals for underage alcohol and marijuana possession.
- Allows for contemporaneous sealing of felony acquittals and dismissals with the consent of the prosecuting attorney.
- Provides for sealing a broad range of misdemeanor and low-level felony convictions and deferred dismissals through a petition-based court process. Notably, court debt will not be a barrier to record clearance under the legislation.
- Introduces a system of court-appointed counsel for individuals who cannot afford an attorney for the petition-based sealing process.
- Forces private companies that buy and sell criminal records to routinely delete sealed records and creates a private right of action for individuals against companies that refuse to do so.
Most provisions of the bill are not currently set to take effect until July 1, 2025, to give the Virginia State Police and the courts sufficient time to update their computer systems. Increased funding or other future action by the General Assembly could change the effective date.