This year is turning out to be another remarkable year for new record relief enactments. In just the first six months of 2021, 25 states enacted no fewer than 51 laws authorizing sealing or expungement of criminal records, with another 5 states enrolling 11 bills that await a governor’s signature. Three of these states authorized sealing of convictions for the first time, seven states passed laws (or enrolled bills) providing authority for automatic sealing, and a number of additional states substantially expanded the reach of their existing expungement laws.
This post hits the highlights of what may well be the most extraordinary six-month period in the extraordinary modern period of criminal record reform that begin in 2013. The only closely comparable period is the first six months of 2018, when 11 states enacted major reforms limiting consideration of criminal records in occupational licensing. Further details of the laws mentioned below can be found in the relevant state profiles from the Restoration of Rights Project.
(An earlier post noted new occupational licensing laws in 2021, and subsequent ones will describe significant extensions of the right to vote so far this year, and summarize the more than 100 record reforms enacted to date.) Read more
Since 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.
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.
Recently, in commenting on a new expungement scheme enacted by the Louisiana legislature, we noted the disconnect between the stated reentry-related purposes of the law and its lengthy eligibility waiting periods. If people have to log many years of law-abiding conduct before they can even apply for this relief, it is not likely to be of much help to people returning home from prison. Were Louisiana lawmakers unaware that the new expungement law would be unlikely to serve its stated purposes, or did they have some reason for advertising the new law in terms they knew were inapt.
We were struck by this recent headline: “Gov. McAuliffe makes pardon from hospital, where he will remain overnight.” The Virginia governor was recuperating from a procedure to drain his lungs made necessary by a holiday fall from a horse, when he called reporters to his hospital room to witness a grant of “conditional pardon” (Virginia’s term for a sentence commutation) to an autistic man jailed for assaulting a police officer, to permit him to go to a secure treatment center in Florida for help rather than being warehoused for years in a Virginia prison. It is likely that McAuliffe wanted to show himself fully able to conduct state business. But it seems significant that he chose this particular official act to make the point.
The bookend episode that immediately comes to mind is Bill Clinton’s well-publicized departure from the campaign trail in 1992 to fly home to Arkansas to sign Ricky Ray Rector’s death warrant. Rector had shot himself in the head after murdering a police officer and was effectively lobotomized — and so unable to appreciate his circumstances that he asked to save the pecan pie from his last meal for “later.”
There may be no more telling sign that the “soft of crime” label is losing its power over elected officials than McAuliffe’s decision to publicize this bedside act of mercy.
Louisiana has far and away the largest prison population of any state in the country (847 per 100,000 people — Mississippi is second with 692 per), but until last year there was little that those returning home after serving felony sentences could do to unshackle themselves from their criminal records and the collateral consequences that accompany them. While Louisiana has for years authorized expungement of misdemeanor convictions and non-conviction records, the only relief available to convicted felony offenders was a governor’s pardon — very few of which have been granted in Louisiana in recent years. Most people convicted of a felony in the state, no matter how long ago and no matter how serious the conduct, were stuck with it.* That’s why we were interested to learn that in 2014 Louisiana enacted a brand new freestanding Chapter 34 of its Code of Criminal Procedure to consolidate and extend the law governing record expungement to many felonies.
We decided to find out what the new law offers to those with felony records, and how it stacks up against the three other new comprehensive expungement schemes in Arkansas, Indiana, and Minnesota. We found that while a relatively large number of people with felony convictions are newly eligible for expungement relief, the law’s effectiveness is hampered by 1) unreasonably long waiting periods and 2) limited effectiveness in mitigating collateral consequences related to employment and licensure. Read more
An AP story about the perils of pardoning, picked up by newspapers and media outlets across the country, manages to convey three pieces of misinformation in its very first sentence. Riffing off a recent high profile pardon application, it begins like this: “Mark Wahlberg’s plea for a pardon has focused fresh attention on excusing criminal acts – something governors rarely do because it’s so politically risky.”
But pardons do not “excuse” crimes, they forgive them; governors have been pardoning more and more generously in recent years; and pardoning, like any other government program involving personal participation by a high profile elected official, is generally not risky if done in a responsible manner with good staff support and without apology.
Oklahoma is the most recent state to expand its expungement laws to make more people eligible for record-clearing at an earlier date. While the specific changes adopted by the Oklahoma legislature are relatively modest, involving reduced waiting periods and fewer disqualifying priors, they are significant as part of a national trend toward enlarging this type of “forgetting” relief for people with minor criminal records. Details of Oklahoma’s law are available here.
Other states that have enacted new expungement laws or broadened existing ones in the past two years include Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota, and Tennessee.
Alabama’s new expungement law is the first record-closing law in that state and applies only to non-conviction records. Arkansas and Minnesota broadened or consolidated existing expungement schemes that were already quite extensive. The Indiana expungement scheme is entirely new and particularly comprehensive and progressive. (An analysis of the new law by its primary sponsor in the Indiana legislature will be posted in this space very soon.) The effect of this type of “forgetting” relief varies widely from state to state, from complete destruction of records in states like Pennsylvania and Connecticut to more limited relief in Kansas and Indiana, where expunged records remain accessible to some employers as well as law enforcement.
The other type of individualized judicial relief from collateral consequences that is growing in popularity relies not on limiting public access to a person’s criminal record, but instead on Read more