This is the first in a series of comments describing some of the 153 laws passed in 2019 restoring rights or delivering record relief in various ways. The full report on 2019 laws is available here.
Restoration of Civil Rights
In 2019, eleven states took steps to restore the right to vote and to expand awareness of voting eligibility. Our experience is that many people convicted of a felony believe they are disqualified from voting when they are not: almost every state restores voting rights automatically to most convicted individuals at some point, if they are even disenfranchised to begin with.
The most significant new re-enfranchisement laws were enacted in Colorado, Nevada and New Jersey, where convicted individuals are now eligible to vote except when actually incarcerated. Colorado restored the vote to persons on parole supervision, while Nevada revised its complex system for restoring civil rights so that all people with felony convictions may now vote except while in prison. In one of the final legislative acts of 2019, New Jersey’s governor signed a law limiting disenfranchisement to a period of actual incarceration, even in cases where a court has ordered loss of the vote for election law violations, immediately restoring the vote to 80,000 people. These three states joined the two states (New York and Louisiana) that in 2018 took steps to limit disenfranchisement to a period of incarceration: New York’s governor issued the first of a series of executive orders under his pardon power restoring the vote to individuals on parole, and Louisiana passed a law allowing people to register if they have been out of prison for at least five years.
Now, only three of the 19 states that disenfranchise only those sentenced to prison still extend ineligibility through completion of parole: California, Connecticut, and Idaho. Bills under consideration in 2019 in both California and Connecticut would allow people to vote once they leave prison, though in California this will require a constitutional amendment.
Kentucky saw perhaps the most dramatic extension of the franchise in 2019, when its incoming governor Andy Beshear issued an executive order restoring the vote and eligibility for office to an estimated 140,000 individuals convicted of non-violent felonies who had completed their sentences. Before the order, individuals were required to petition the governor individually to obtain restoration of their voting rights. (Governor Beshear’s father had issued a similar order in 2015 at the end of his own term as governor, but it was revoked by his successor.) Iowa is now the only state that does not restore the vote automatically to most convicted individuals at some point.
On October 8, Governor Newsom signed into law AB 1076, the so-called “Clean Slate Act,” authorizing automatic record relief in the form of set-aside or sealing for individuals with certain convictions and arrests under California law. The new law supplements but does not supplant the existing system of petition-based relief, and applies to convictions and arrests occurring after the bill’s effective date of January 1, 2021. Eligibility for automatic relief under the new law is similar to but not precisely coincident with eligibility under existing law. The new law also for the first time prohibits courts and the state repository from disclosing information about conviction records that have been granted relief, except where specifically authorized, whether under the new automatic process or the older petition-based system.
California is now the third state to adopt general “clean slate” record relief, after Pennsylvania (2018) and Utah (2019). While the automatic feature of the new law has prospective effect only, its limits on disclosure will, when effective, apply to all conviction records that have at any time been dismissed or set aside, whether automatically or by petition, as well as to all arrests and other non-conviction records that have been sealed. The specific features of AB 1076 are described in detail in the following comment posted on October 3.
Governor Newsom also on October 8 signed two other bills that affect collateral consequences: SB 310 amends Section 203 of California’s Code of Civil Procedure to make people convicted of a felony eligible to serve of a trial jury unless incarcerated or under supervision, or required to register as a sex offender based upon a felony conviction; and AB 1394 repeals a law requiring that juveniles pay a fee to have their records sealed.
In two recent law review articles, Professor Paul T. Crane of the University of Richmond School of Law proposes that courts and legislators—when deciding whether a criminal defendant is entitled to a particular procedural right—should take into account potential exposure to severe collateral consequences. The two articles together mark a major contribution to the literature. Much attention has focused on alleviating or eliminating collateral consequences after the criminal case is closed, via restoration of rights, clemency, expungement, and other forms of relief. Also, lawmakers, courts, and prosecutors have increasingly turned to diversions and deferred adjudications to avoid a conviction record in the first instance. However, far less attention has been paid to the procedural rights provided to criminal defendants facing potentially severe collateral consequences. As Crane points out, collateral consequences are “generally deemed irrelevant for determining what procedural safeguards must be afforded.”
In Crane’s first article, he argues that courts and legislatures ought to take into account a defendant’s exposure to potentially severe collateral consequences in determining whether procedural safeguards, such as the right to counsel and to a jury trial, apply. In his second article, he proposes a framework for determining when defendants may be entitled to enhanced procedural protections.