Based on our annual report on 2021 criminal record reforms, the bipartisan commitment to a reintegration agenda keeps getting stronger. A majority of the 151 new laws enacted last year authorize courts to clear criminal records, in some states for the very first time, and several states enacted “clean slate” automatic record clearing. Other new laws restore voting and other civil rights lost as a result of conviction, and still others limit how criminal record is considered by employers, occupational licensing agencies, and landlords. (The report includes specific citations to each of the new laws, and they are analyzed in the larger context of each state’s reintegration scheme in our Restoration of Rights Project.)
Again this year we have published a Report Card recognizing the most (and least) productive legislatures in the past year. While more than a dozen states enacted noteworthy laws in 2021, two states stand out for the quantity and quality of their lawmaking: Arizona and Connecticut share our 2021 Reintegration Champion award for their passage of three or more major pieces of record reform legislation.
- Arizona – The state enacted eight new laws, including a broad new record clearing law, two laws improving its occupational licensing scheme, and a judicial “second chance” certificate. Arizona also repealed a law authorizing suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay and authorized its courts to redesignate some felonies as misdemeanors.
- Connecticut – Enacted a major automatic record clearing scheme, restored the right to vote and hold office upon release from prison, provided for record clearing in connection with marijuana legalization, and broadened expungement for victims of human trafficking.
Another eight states and the District of Columbia earned Honorable Mention for their enactment of at least one major new law: Read more
In the first five months of 2021, seven states and the District of Columbia enacted nine separate laws improving opportunities for people with a criminal record to obtain occupational licenses. This continues a four-year trend begun in 2017 that has seen 33 states and the District of Columbia enact 54 separate laws regulating consideration of criminal record in the licensing process.
Our report on new legislation in 2020 noted that “[o]f all the criminal record reforms enacted during this modern reintegration reform era, no other approaches the regulation of occupational licensing agencies in terms of breadth, consistency, and likely efficacy.” Laws enacted during this four-year period have “transformed the licensing policy landscape across the Nation and opened opportunities in regulated professions for many thousands of people.” The only period of law reform that rivals the present one came during the early 1970s, when many of the laws now being revised and extended were first enacted. The effectiveness of advocacy efforts by the Institute for Justice and National Employment Law Project in influencing this trend cannot be overstated.
So far during 2021, the U.S. jurisdiction to have enacted the most ambitious and comprehensive licensing scheme is the District of Columbia, and its new law (described in detail below) is one of the most progressive in the nation. New Jersey, New Mexico and Washington had not previously legislated in this area for many years, and all three extended and improved laws first enacted in the 1970s. Arizona, Georgia, Ohio, and Tennessee extended recently enacted laws, with Arizona legislating for the fourth time in this area in as many years!
The nine new laws are described below, and have been added to the state profiles and 50-state charts of the Restoration of Rights Project.
After 11 states enacted 19 laws limiting consideration of criminal records by occupational licensing agencies last year, the first significant record reforms of 2021 are occupational licensing laws enacted by Ohio and the District of Columbia. D.C.’s new law is particularly comprehensive, and applies both to health-related and other licensed professions in the District.
The new District of Columbia law, Act A23-0561, is described in detail in the DC profile from the Restoration of Rights Project. It provides that no one may be denied a license based on conviction of a crime unless it is “directly related” to the licensed occupation, as determined by a detailed set of standards; prohibits inquiry about a record until an applicant has been found otherwise qualified and then prohibits consideration of certain records (including non-conviction and sealed convictions); and provides procedural protections in the event of denial. The new law also establishes a pre-application petition process for individuals with a record to determine their eligibility, and requires the Mayor to report annually to the Council on each board’s record. The Institute for Justice has described the “landmark” new D.C. law as “the best in the nation, second only to Indiana.”
The new Ohio law, HB 263, is more complex and less protective than DC’s, requiring licensing boards to publish lists of two types of convictions: those that “shall” be disqualifying (overcome only by a court-ordered certificate) and those that “may” be found disqualify based on their “direct relationship” to the licensed occupation. Other convictions and non-conviction records may not be grounds for denying a license, and vague terms like “moral character” and “moral turpitude” may not be used. If a conviction is on the list of those “directly related,” the board must still consider certain standards linked to an applicants overall record that are linked to public safety, and may not deny after a period of either five or 10 years depending on the offense. In the event of denial, a board must provide procedural protections including written reasons and a hearing. These new features supplement the provision for a binding preliminary determination enacted by Ohio in 2019.
Michigan‘s governor also signed a series of bills regulating occupational licensure on the last day of 2020, which include some of the features of the schemes described above but retain the unfortunate disqualification standard of “good moral character.” While Michigan’s licensing law could use improvement, it contributed to the state’s earning the title of Reintegration Champion of 2020.
Our report on new legislation in 2020, documenting that 11 states enacted 19 licensing reform laws, noted that “[o]f all the criminal record reforms enacted during this modern reintegration reform era, no other approaches the regulation of occupational licensing agencies in terms of breadth, consistency, and likely efficacy.” We reprint the discussion of 2020 licensing reform from our report here:
There are currently only three on-line collections of collateral consequences, one national and two state-specific (Ohio and North Carolina). All three can be searched and sorted, and all three are regularly updated, making them indispensable practice tools for lawyers and essential guides for advocates and people with a criminal record. Each of these inventories is described below by the individuals who helped create them and now administer them. They explain how the inventories were created and how they are maintained, and how they operate to inform and assist people interested in understanding the legal and regulatory restrictions that affect people with a criminal record, as well as the lawyers and other advocates who assist them.
Note that the three inventories each deal differently with the problem of linking specific consequences with the crimes that trigger them. Ohio’s CIVICC inventory has the greatest granularity, allowing searches by specific provision of the state criminal code. North Carolina’s C-CAT inventory is somewhat less specific, linking specific collateral consequences with the “crime characteristics” that make the consequence applicable, including the type and degree of crime. The national inventory (NICCC) is less specific still, stating triggering offenses for each consequence in terms of broad categories of crimes (e.g., “any felony” or “crimes of moral turpitude”). This approach not only reflects the way most state laws imposing collateral consequences are drafted (Ohio consequences are a conspicuous exception), but it also has the advantage of allowing cross-jurisdictional comparisons and analysis.
The descriptions that follow confirm that a great deal of time and money, not to mention the commitment of dedicated and skilled professionals, goes into keeping the inventories current, given the passage of new laws every year. Thankfully, much legislating nowadays is in the direction of helping people avoid or mitigate these consequences, through judicial certificates and record-sealing mechanisms, rather than imposing further burdens and restrictions. (See the CCRC report on 2018 laws, and its recent interim survey of laws enacted already in 2019.)
Earlier this year we reported that, in 2018, legislatures enacted an unprecedented number of new laws aimed at restoring rights and opportunities for people with a criminal record. (Last year 32 states, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands enacted 61 new laws to facilitate reentry and reintegration.) The first quarter of 2019 has already produced a baker’s dozen of new restoration laws, some quite significant, indicating that this year is likely to be every bit as productive as last. The 13 new laws enhance access to record-clearing relief, occupational licensing and employment, and executive clemency. Also notable, if only for the sheer number of people who will benefit when the law goes into effect on July 1, is the Virginia legislature’s accession to Governor Ralph Northam’s request that it “eliminate the unfair practice of revoking a person’s driver’s license for failure to pay court fines and fees,” which will immediately reinstate driving privileges to more than 627,000 Virginians.
This year to date, state lawmakers have focused most of their attention on improving access to record-clearing: 8 of the 13 new laws expand eligibility for expungement and sealing and streamline applicable procedures. The two most significant new laws were enacted in Western states. Utah’s HB 431—signed by Governor Gary Herbert on March 28, 2019—provides for automated sealing relief for certain non-conviction, infraction, and misdemeanor conviction records. When it takes effect on May 1, 2020, it will be the nation’s second “clean slate” law in operation (Pennsylvania’s first-in-the-Nation 2018 clean slate law will be implemented over a 12-month period beginning in June 2019). Utah also clarified that employers may not ask about—and an applicant for employment need not disclose—expunged convictions (except under narrow exceptions for public employment).
An empirical study of Ohio’s judicial “certificate of qualification for employment” finds that it is “an effective avenue for lessening the stigma of a criminal record” in the context of employment and licensing. The certificate, authorized in 2012, lifts mandatory legal restrictions and limits employer liability for negligent hiring claims, with the goal of ensuring that employment and licensing decisions about certificate holders are on a case-by-case basis, on the merits. The court-issued certificate is available to anyone with any Ohio conviction, no matter how serious, as long as they have completed their sentence and can show that they are barred from employment or licensure by a “collateral sanction.” There is a short waiting period, and applicants must show that they pose no public safety risk.
The Ohio certificates are part of a recent trend toward authorizing courts to grant certificates of restoration of rights to people with conviction records. It seems that states are far more likely to authorize this more transparent form of relief for those convicted of felonies, reserving record-sealing to misdemeanor or non-conviction records.
Since 2013, almost every state has taken at least some steps to chip away at the negative effects of a criminal record on an individual’s ability to earn a living, access housing, education and public benefits, and otherwise fully participate in civil society. It has not been an easy task, in part because of the volume and complexity of state and federal laws imposing collateral consequences. To encourage employers and other decision-makers to give convicted individuals a fair chance, some states have enacted or modified judicial restoration mechanisms like expungement, sealing, and certificates of relief. Others have extended nondiscrimination laws, limited criminal record inquiries, and facilitated front-end opportunities to avoid conviction.
In partnership with the NACDL Restoration of Rights Project, the CCRC maintains a comprehensive and current state-by-state guide to mechanisms for restoration of rights and status after conviction. As a part of keeping that resource up to date, we have inventoried measures enacted and policies adopted by states in the past four years to mitigate or avoid the disabling effects of a criminal record, and present it here as a snapshot of an encouraging national trend.
A new empirical study provides important evidence that “certificates of recovery/relief” can be effective in facilitating employment opportunities for people with a criminal record. Two University of South Carolina criminologists have concluded that employers in Ohio are willing to look beyond the criminal histories of job applicants who have been issued a Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE) from a state court. The study, which involved sending fictitious resumes to over 300 employers in the Columbus area, found that individuals with a felony drug conviction were more than three times as likely to receive a job interview or offer if they had received a CQE.
Although the study’s findings are described as preliminary, they fill an important gap in our knowledge of the effectiveness of Ohio’s CQE, and by inference of similar certificate schemes in other jurisdictions. Such schemes have to date been justified on the basis of assumptions and anecdotal evidence, with little hard data to vouch for their potency. The abstract follows:
Securing stable, quality employment is one of the most robust predictors of desistance from offending. Yet, obtaining gainful employment is difficult for ex-offenders due to the stigma of a criminal record. In recognition of employment-related barriers to re-entry, some state legislatures have created certificates of recovery/relief, which lift occupational licensing restrictions, limit employer liability for negligent hiring claims, and aim to ensure employment decisions about certificate-holders are made on a case-by-case basis. The present study presents the results of the first empirical test of the effectiveness of such certificates. Using an experimental correspondence design, fictitious applicants applied to entry-level jobs advertised in the Columbus metropolitan area using fabricated resumes with identical names, educational backgrounds, employment experience, and skills. Because the only differences between the resumes were the type of criminal record and the presence of a Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE), the results isolate the specific impacts of criminal records and certificates on employment opportunities. Results indicate that, for job seekers with a one-year-old felony drug conviction, having a certificate of recovery increases the likelihood of receiving an interview invitation or job offer more than threefold. Importantly, certificate-holders and their counterparts with clean criminal backgrounds were equally likely to receive an interview invitation or job offer.
On January 28, 2015, the Ohio Supreme Court settled an issue it has toyed with for several years, relating to the inherent power of courts to seal criminal records. In State v. Radcliff, a closely divided court held that judicial power to seal a conviction record, including the record of a conviction that has been pardoned, is limited by law. In Ohio, there is no statutory basis for sealing a pardoned conviction as there is in many (though not most) states. The majority evidently found this conclusion an unhappy one, lamenting that “until the General Assembly acts, we are left with the understanding that a pardon provides only forgiveness, not forgetfulness.”
“Only forgiveness.” Is pardon then such a second class prize? What makes an official determination of the recipient’s good character by the state’s highest elected official so much less attractive an option for mitigating the adverse consequences of conviction than pretending it never occurred? If the answer is that the American people are relentlessly unforgiving, we clearly have some national soul-searching to do.
As will come clear from the following discussion, I do not share the Radcliff majority’s evident belief that a pardon is worth little unless it results in a court expunging the record of the pardoned conviction (and presumably the pardon itself).