On April 6, Arizona became the latest state to offer early relief from sex offender registration obligations to young people convicted of consensual sex offenses and sentenced to probation. The law, HB 2539, allows individuals convicted before reaching age 22 of sexual conduct with a minor between the ages of 15 and 17 (so-called “Romeo and Juliet” offenders), to petition the court for relief from registration after completing probation. If a petitioner meets all applicable criteria, the court must grant the petition unless it finds that a “denial is in the best interests of justice or tends to ensure the safety of the public.” Similar laws authorizing early termination from registration for those convicted of youthful consensual offenses are in effect in ten other states, including Florida, Oregon, and Michigan.
Laws requiring young people to register have come under increased scrutiny thanks to recent media coverage of their harsh effects and flimsy justifications — notably an article by Sarah Stillman published last month in the New Yorker (“The List”). Much of the attention to registry of juveniles has been driven by mobilization around the issue by advocacy groups like Reform Sex Offender Laws (RSOL) and the Center on Youth Registration Reform (CYRR). In 2013, Human Rights Watch issued a ground-breaking report on the issue, Raised on the Registry.
Beginning January 1st, 2015, many Minnesotans will have a meaningful shot at a second chance through criminal records expungement. For decades, many individuals have relied upon (and often languished under) a court’s inherent authority to expunge (or seal) criminal records, but recent Minnesota Supreme Court decisions effectively eviscerated that remedy. Without a legislative act expressly granting judicial authority to seal records held within executive branch agencies, the majority of petitioners were granted orders sealing only court records—leaving numerous publicly accessible criminal records untouched.
The new law, passed with bipartisan support and building upon momentum gained with last year’s Ban the Box for private employers, changes that. It provides new authority for expunging (sealing) both criminal and juvenile records held by executive branch agencies; requires data mining companies to observe expungements, protects employers and landlords hiring and renting to individuals with expunged records, addresses victimization and housing evictions, and clarifies a number of procedural issues. The standard for granting expungement remains that under current law, requiring the court to balance private and public interests.
While by no means a silver bullet, this new legislation will help a significant number of Minnesotans currently locked out of employment, housing, licensure, education, and countless other of life opportunities, by providing a true opportunity for a second chance.
Here is an explanation of the new law’s specific provisions.
The Wisconsin statute that allows courts to expunge certain conviction records of youthful offenders, Wis. Stat. § 973.015, provides that the court must make its decision about whether to expunge at the time of sentencing, conditioned upon the defendant successfully completing his or her sentence.
Often, young defendants receive a probationary term for crimes that are eligible for expungement (all misdemeanors, as well as certain felonies in the lower levels of severity). Prior case law has established that, although expungement is conditional upon successful completion of probation in this situation, the court may not defer ruling on the expungement request.
In State v. Hemp, the Wisconsin Supreme Court clarified that expungement occurs automatically if the statutory conditions are met, and that a defendant is not required after completing probation to apply to the sentencing court for entry of the expungement order. Importantly, the court also provided some guidance regarding the legal effect of expungement that will be of interest to job applicants who have had a previous conviction expunged.
The New York Times this morning describes data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights showing that African-American girls tend to face more serious school discipline than white girls. “For all the attention placed on problems that black boys face in terms of school discipline and criminal justice, there is increasing focus on the way those issues affect black girls as well.” Black girls who get in trouble at school are also more frequently referred to the criminal justice system, where they can incur a criminal record that sticks with them into adulthood.
Actor-producer Mark Wahlberg has filed an application for pardon with the Governor of Massachusetts, seeking forgiveness for a 25-year old assault conviction that occurred when he was 16 years old. The “onetime ruffian from Dorchester” bases his request for pardon on his rehabilitation and contributions to society since his conviction. He also specifies his desire to avoid certain legal restrictions that he claims are impeding his business endeavors and civic activities.
By his own account, Mr. Wahlberg was a troubled teen who had a history of scrapes with the law by the time of the 1988 assault. He states in his pardon application that, if he
had not turned his life around with the help of “faith, hard work, and guidance from some incredible mentors,” he “would likely have ended up like so many of my childhood friends from Dorchester: dead or in prison for a prolonged period of time.” He expresses remorse for his actions on the night of the assault, as well as “any lasting damage that I may have caused the victims.” He does not specify what that damage might have been, though news reports indicate that it was serious and possibly permanent.
As to his reasons for seeking a pardon, he claims that “my prior record can potentially be the basis to deny me a concessionaire’s license in California and elsewhere, “an important consideration given my personal involvement in various restaurant ventures,” presumably a reference to the fast-expanding chain of Wahlburgers. He believes that, if pardoned, “I could not be denied a concessionaire’s license on the basis of my prior record,” which may or may not be the case.*
Wahlberg also proposes that a pardon would enable him to become “more active in law enfor
cement activities, including those that assist at-risk individuals.” He states that only a full and unconditional pardon would, under California law, enable him to “obtain a position as a parole or probation officer.” True enough, but an improbable ambition for an A-List movie star. He disavows in his application any immediate interest in obtaining a firearms permit — leading this writer to wonder if one is required on location.
This month the Juvenile Law Center released an impressive pair of reports evaluating national policy on public access to juvenile criminal records. The first report, Juvenile Records: A National Review of State Laws on Confidentiality, Sealing and Expungement, provides a national overview of state laws, and proposes standards to mitigate exposure to collateral consequences as a result of a juvenile record. The report also makes recommendations for policy-makers, courts, defense attorneys, and youth-serving agencies. Supplementing the national overview are fact sheets on the law in each state, including the availability and effect of expungement or sealing, and an overview of the process for obtaining such relief. (These fact sheets can be found by clicking on the relevant state on the map here).
A second complementary report, Failed Policies, Forfeited Futures: A Nationwide Scorecard on Juvenile Records, scores each state on the degree to which it meets the Center’s ideal standards for juvenile record protection. The Center based its evaluation of the states on its “core principles for record protection” including:
This New York Times editorial urges states to seal or expunge juvenile records “so that young offenders are not permanently impaired by their youthful transgressions.” It describes a new study from the Juvenile Law Center that concludes “only a few states have ironclad systems prohibiting employers and members of the public from gaining access to [juvenile] records.”
The first juvenile courts were established more than a century ago on the principle that children deserve special care under the law because they are vulnerable, because their transgressions tend to be nonviolent and because they can be expected, on the whole, to outgrow their youthful misbehavior.
These presumptions are borne out by data showing that 95 percent of young people enter the juvenile justice system for nonviolent crimes like theft or vandalism — behavior they typically leave behind when they move into adulthood. But because some juvenile court records remain open to the public when they should have been sealed or expunged, these young people can be denied jobs, housing and even admission to college.