On September 15, 2016, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s denial of expungement to a woman convicted 13 years before of forgery and drug-dealing, holding that the court abused its discretion in denying relief where the case fully met the statutory standards. The decision provides a window into how one of the Nation’s most expansive new expungement laws is being interpreted and enforced by the courts of the state. Judging by this decision, the approach to restoration of rights in this otherwise-conservative state remains encouraging.
Here is Olivia Covington’s article from the Indiana Lawyer reporting on the decision, with a link to its full text.
A new article in the Harvard Law & Policy Review evaluates some of the recent legislative efforts to deliver relief from the burden of collateral consequences through new or expanded expungement laws. In “A New Era for Expungement Law Reform? Recent Developments at the State and Federal Levels,” Brian Murray argues that many of the newer record-closing laws are far too modest in scope and effect to have much of an impact on the problem of reintegration, citing Louisiana and Maryland enactments as examples of relief that is both too little and too late. He admires Indiana’s broad new expungement scheme, which limits use of records as well as access to them, regarding it (as do we) as an enlightened exception to a general legislative aversion to risk. He considers recent legislation in Minnesota to fall into a middle category — and we could add Arkansas as another state to have recently augmented and clarified older record-closing laws. Our round-up of new expungement laws enacted just this year finds very little consistency from state to state, with Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and New Jersey all experimenting with different approaches.
Murray appreciates the need for a multifaceted approach to the problem of criminal records, and recognizes the doctrinal and practical shortcomings of a reform agenda that depends primarily on concealment. His bottom line, with which we agree, is that “[s]kepticism regarding the benefits of expungement in the information age, coupled with the incremental nature of legislative reform, leads to the conclusion that expungement law must continue to develop as one piece in a larger puzzle.”
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.
An article from The Marshall Project published on September 17 got us thinking about the elusive term “expungement” and what it really means, both functionally and philosophically. In “Five Things You Didn’t Know About Clearing Your Record: A primer on the complicated road to expungement,“ Christie Thompson describes an unusual class action lawsuit recently filed by a public-spirited lawyer in a Tennessee county court seeking “to have the case files destroyed for hundreds of thousands of arrests and charges that never resulted in a conviction.” She proceeds to point out some of the pros and cons of expungement relief, including that expunged records may still be available from private background screening companies or the internet.
But the problems with expungement laws are deeper than the article suggests. Quite apart from theoretical objections to relief based on pretense, the fact is that expungement laws have functional flaws even where public records are concerned. For example, the Tennessee expungement law described in the Marshall Project article has no effect on records in the possession of law enforcement or prosecutors, or on appellate court records and opinions. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-32-101(b)(1). Moreover, it authorizes release of expunged arrest histories of a defendant or potential witness in a criminal proceeding to an attorney of record in the proceeding upon request. See § 40-32-101(c)(3).
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.
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
Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decisions in Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. Doe, 538 U.S. 1 (2003) and Smith v. Doe, 538 U.S. 84 (2003), state courts are coming to different conclusions under their own constitutions about whether sex offender registration and notification laws constitute punishment for purposes of due process and ex post facto analysis. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the most recent to invalidate mandatory registration requirements imposed on juveniles, but several state supreme courts have limited the retroactive application of registration requirements to adults under an ex post facto analysis.
In May of 2013, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed into law what is possibly the most comprehensive and forward-looking restoration of rights statute ever enacted in this country. Under the new law, courts are empowered to “expunge” most criminal records, after waiting periods keyed to the seriousness of the offense. The effect of an expungement order varies to some extent according to the nature of the crime, but its core concept is to restore rights and eliminate discrimination based on criminal record in the workplace and elsewhere. This new law has already resulted in relief for hundreds of individuals, due in large part to the proactive approach of the state courts in facilitating pro se representation.
We recently had a chance to talk to the person primarily responsible for shepherding this law through the Indiana legislature, and his experience should be instructive to reform advocates in other states. Jud McMillin, a conservative former prosecutor who chairs the House Committee on Courts and Criminal Code, might once have been regarded as a rather unusual champion of this unique and progressive legislation. But in an age of bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, apparently anything can happen. Read more
Twenty years ago, criminal record background checks for employment were rare. Today, the easy accessibility of criminal records on the Internet, and the post-September 11th culture of heightened scrutiny, have contributed to a sharp increase in background checks of job candidates. If you’re applying for jobs in most industries, expect employers to ask about a criminal record at some point in the hiring process—and expect many of them to run a background check on you.
It’s a harsh reality for an estimated one in four U.S. adults who have some type of criminal record. Unfortunately, any involvement with the criminal justice system—even having minor or old offenses—could become a job obstacle for these 70 million Americans. Even if you’ve avoided a run-in with the law, you could still find yourself being unfairly screened out for a job due to an erroneous background check report. With thousands of private background check companies across the country that have varying levels of reliable information, inaccuracies in these reports are far too common.
Unknown to many job candidates, private background check companies and the employers relying on their reports are regulated by a federal consumer protection law called the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Although more well-known in the credit report context, FCRA also applies to companies that produce criminal background check information, and gives job-seekers a number of protections.
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