A thoughtful new article by Brian Murray recommends a new way of conceptualizing expungement that should make it easier for reformers to justify facilitating access to this record relief. In “Retributive Expungement,” forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Murray argues that expungement should be seen as a way to end warranted punishment rather than to recognize and incentivize rehabilitation. The argument goes that if the legal and social disadvantages of a criminal record function as part and parcel of the criminal sentence imposed by the court, as opposed to a loosely related system of civil penalties that are activated by other laws and other actors, then the court has an obligation at some point to discharge it. While this argument is not new, Murray places it squarely in a modern retributivist framework.
In an earlier era, the drafters of the 1962 Model Penal Code embraced this idea of tying up the loose ends of criminal punishments through court-ordered dispensation, although they chose a more transparent form of remedy in judicial vacatur or set-aside. Before that, this function of ending punishment was performed by executive pardon. In modern times, as ubiquitous background checking has made a criminal record a lasting Mark of Cain, most agree that the record should be made unavailable for private and most public purposes at some point, unless disclosure is ordered by the court for some purpose authorized by law. Facilitating access to this record relief should be easier with the theoretical frame proposed by Murray.
Here is the abstract and a link:
Expungement relief was introduced in the mid-twentieth century to reward and incentivize rehabilitation for arrestees and ex-offenders and to protect their privacy. Recently, many states have broadened their expungement remedies, and those remedies remain useful given the negative effects of public criminal records on reentry. But recent scholarship has suggested an “uptake gap,” meaning many who are eligible never obtain relief. Despite broadening eligibility, petitioners face substantial obstacles to filing, pre-hearing hurdles, waiting periods, and difficult standards of review without the assistance of counsel. And even when expungement is granted, the recipients are basically left on their own to guarantee the efficacy of the remedy. Some of these attributes of expungement were originally conceived as features, designed to ensure only the most rehabilitated received relief, allowing the state to continue to pursue public safety objectives with public criminal records. But the cold reality of expungement procedure leaves many petitioners facing insurmountable obstacles that amplify the effects of the punishment originally imposed.
In exploring this reality, this Article illustrates that expungement procedure is stuck in a rehabilitative and privacy-centric paradigm. While this framework inspired the creation of expungement remedies and recent reforms, it also has justified onerous procedural obstacles and the placing of the burden of persuasion on the petitioner rather than the state. Outside of automated expungement, which is still relatively rare and restricted to only certain types of petitions, most expungement regimes in substance or through procedure invert what should be the state’s burden to justify retention of criminal records that enable extra punishment by state and private actors. An alternative theoretical basis for expungement is necessary to convince policymakers and decision-makers of the need for broader substantive and procedural reform.
This Article suggests a different paradigm: retributive based expungement. It proposes that incorporating retributive constraints that already underlie the criminal system can benefit petitioners. Plenty of arrestees do not deserve stigma and ex-offenders have done their time, meaning punitive stigma from public criminal records can amount to unwarranted punishment. A retributive-minded expungement procedure would all but guarantee expungement in the case of arrests, where the desert basis is questionable, and would place the burden of proof on the state for convictions once desert has been satisfied. As such, this approach can supplement the case for broader eligibility, automated expungement, and favorable pre-hearing procedures that limit the uptake gap. It also has legal and political viability given that many states already maintain retributivist constraints on sentencing and given that huge swaths of the public perceive desert as a crucial component of any criminal justice issue. In fact, some states are already moving in this direction and can serve as a model for the rest of the country. In short, retributivist constraints can trim procedural overgrowth to supplement substantive reforms that already recognize the disproportionate effects of a public criminal record.