CCRC is pleased to announce that we are undertaking a major study of the public availability and use of non-conviction records – including arrests that are never charged, charges that are dismissed, deferred and diversionary dispositions, and acquittals. Law enforcement agencies and courts frequently make these records available to the public allowing widespread dissemination on the internet, both directly and through private for-profit databases. Their appearance in background checks can lead to significant discrimination against people who have never been convicted of a crime, and result unfairly in barriers to employment, housing, education, and many other opportunities. Research has shown that limiting public access to these records through mechanisms like sealing and expungement is valuable in economic terms for those who receive this relief, and improvements in their economic status will in turn benefit their families and communities.
While almost every U.S. jurisdiction makes some provision for limiting public access to non-conviction records, such relief varies widely in availability and effect, and is often difficult to take advantage of without a lawyer. What’s more, arrest records may remain accessible on the internet long after official court files have been made confidential or even destroyed. While CCRC’s Restoration of Rights Project now includes state-by-state information on how non-conviction records may be sealed or expunged, our new project will examine the operation of applicable laws more closely.
The first phase of this project will produce by early June 2019 a detailed inventory of the laws in each U.S. jurisdiction for limiting public use of and access to records of arrests and/or judicial proceedings that do not result in conviction. Among other things, this inventory will examine both: (1) categorical or automatic relief (such as general confidentiality laws and limits on considering non-conviction records by employers and licensing boards); and (2) case-specific relief (such as sealing and expungement, either automatic or by application). For this second type of relief, the study will look at eligibility criteria (including waiting periods and overall criminal record), procedures (including filing fees or other financial barriers), and effect (entities excepted from restrictions on access and use). It will also note where state law or court rulings permit redaction of records so that dismissed charges may be sealed even if one or more charges in a case do result in conviction.
After completing the research phase of the project, CCRC will consult with scholars and practitioners to prepare a nationwide analysis, examining specific issues across all jurisdictions, identifying patterns and gaps in existing laws and policies.
The second and final phase of the project will be launched at a roundtable meeting on August 16-17, 2019, hosted by the University of Michigan Law School. The roundtable will produce a set of policy recommendations and model legislation aimed at neutralizing the effect of non-conviction records. Professors JJ Prescott and Sonja Starr of the Law School faculty will serve as conference hosts and collaborators on this second phrase. A number of legal scholars, practitioners, judges, law enforcement officials, and legislators have already agreed to participate. At least three of those invited themselves have criminal records. We expect to have several technology experts at the table to advise about the operational implications of the policies and legislation we are considering, in light of how states manage their criminal records systems.
Following the August roundtable, we will finalize its recommendations and model law with the assistance of scholars and other experts; publish them in a report; and promote them widely in the academic and advocacy community.
The principal value of this project will be to inform and strengthen efforts underway in legislatures and advocacy organizations across the country to mitigate the disabling effects of a criminal record on the lives of people who have one, on their families and on their communities. We believe that reforming the law is as important a part of the reintegration agenda as advocating for and providing services to those who are seeking a second chance, and we hope this project will be the first stage of a larger national law reform effort to address access to and use of all types of criminal records. In light of the intense interest in legislatures across the country in mitigating the effect of criminal records, as evidenced in our 2018 report on relevant laws passed just last year, there is an obvious need for such guidance. The first months of 2019 have evidenced an even greater level of legislative interest, on which we expect to report again shortly.