This year is turning out to be another remarkable year for new record relief enactments. In just the first six months of 2021, 25 states enacted no fewer than 51 laws authorizing sealing or expungement of criminal records, with another 5 states enrolling 11 bills that await a governor’s signature. Three of these states authorized sealing of convictions for the first time, seven states passed laws (or enrolled bills) providing authority for automatic sealing, and a number of additional states substantially expanded the reach of their existing expungement laws.
This post hits the highlights of what may well be the most extraordinary six-month period in the extraordinary modern period of criminal record reform that begin in 2013. The only closely comparable period is the first six months of 2018, when 11 states enacted major reforms limiting consideration of criminal records in occupational licensing. Further details of the laws mentioned below can be found in the relevant state profiles from the Restoration of Rights Project.
(An earlier post noted new occupational licensing laws in 2021, and subsequent ones will describe significant extensions of the right to vote so far this year, and summarize the more than 100 record reforms enacted to date.) Read more
In recent weeks, three more states — Colorado, Louisiana and Vermont — have enacted laws intended to make it easier for people with a criminal record to find and keep employment, or otherwise to regain rights and status.
We are just now noting Wyoming’s enactment in March 2018 of general standards for professional and occupational licensure, which impose new restrictions on how criminal record may be taken into account by licensing agencies, and its amendment of more than a dozen specific licensing laws.
In the first five months of 2018 alone, a total of 21 states have enacted legislation to improve opportunities for people with a criminal record, with more similar laws evidently on the way. States have enacted several different types of “second chance” laws this year, from expansion of voting rights to expansion of judicial authority to relieve collateral consequences at sentencing.
The trend toward expanding expungement and sealing laws is continuing. In the last week of April, the governors of Maryland and Oklahoma signed bills enlarging eligibility criteria and reducing waiting periods, joining Florida and Utah with new record-sealing enactments in 2018. The provisions of these two newest laws are described below. Similar legislation is well along in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Vermont. Vermont S 173, enrolled and awaiting the governor’s signature, is of particular interest since it makes expungement automatic in some categories without the requirement of a petition or filing fee (“unless either party objects in the interest of justice”). We are tracking these pending bills and will add them to the Restoration of Rights Project if and when they are enacted.
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.
Vermonter Rich Cassidy, who chairs the CCRC Board, drew our attention to this extraordinary story of courage and compassion and plain good sense in the Green Mountain State. Published last week in the Vermont weekly Seven Days, it tells the story of LaMoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux Jr.’s decision to take a chance on Timothy Szad, described as “a gifted carpenter and diligent worker” who is also “Lamoille County’s most notorious criminal.”
Here are a few introductory paragraphs to a story well worth reading in full.
In 2000, Szad stalked and sexually assaulted a 13-year-old boy in the southern Vermont woods. He went to jail for his crime and served the maximum sentence. But his punishment didn’t end when he got out, in 2013. His release was widely publicized, which generated something of a vigilante reaction. So he embarked on a cross-country journey in search of a new home. When no place would have him, he wound up back in Vermont — this time, in sleepy Hyde Park.
Starting next summer, private as well as public employers in Vermont will no longer be permitted to ask about a job applicant’s criminal history on an initial employment application. The change comes with the enactment of House Bill 261, which Governor Peter Shumlin signed into law yesterday. With the law’s enactment, Vermont becomes just the eighth state to ban the box in private employment. When CCRC Board Chair Rich Cassidy testified in favor of the provision before the Vermont legislature, he emphasized the importance of extending the prohibition to private employers.
In a signing ceremony, Governor Shumlin, who last year issued an executive order banning the box in public employment, had the following to say about the new law’s significance:
Too many Vermonters with criminal records are unable to successfully re-enter their communities due to lack of employment. Banning the box is all about breaking down barriers and giving those Vermonters who have paid their debt to society a fair chance at finding a good job. Nobody wins when Vermonters are trapped in a cycle of unemployment and incarceration.
The certificate system for restoring rights after conviction in New York no longer serves its intended purposes, according to an investigation by City Limits. The problem is that Certificates of Relief from Disabilities (CRD) are supposed to be a means to rehabilitation for people sentenced to probation, but the judges authorized to issue them see them (in the words of one public defender) “as a gold star, as a thing you get after you’ve been rehabilitated.” The Parole Board appears similarly Read more
Recently, in commenting on a new expungement scheme enacted by the Louisiana legislature, we noted the disconnect between the stated reentry-related purposes of the law and its lengthy eligibility waiting periods. If people have to log many years of law-abiding conduct before they can even apply for this relief, it is not likely to be of much help to people returning home from prison. Were Louisiana lawmakers unaware that the new expungement law would be unlikely to serve its stated purposes, or did they have some reason for advertising the new law in terms they knew were inapt.
Louisiana has far and away the largest prison population of any state in the country (847 per 100,000 people — Mississippi is second with 692 per), but until last year there was little that those returning home after serving felony sentences could do to unshackle themselves from their criminal records and the collateral consequences that accompany them. While Louisiana has for years authorized expungement of misdemeanor convictions and non-conviction records, the only relief available to convicted felony offenders was a governor’s pardon — very few of which have been granted in Louisiana in recent years. Most people convicted of a felony in the state, no matter how long ago and no matter how serious the conduct, were stuck with it.* That’s why we were interested to learn that in 2014 Louisiana enacted a brand new freestanding Chapter 34 of its Code of Criminal Procedure to consolidate and extend the law governing record expungement to many felonies.
We decided to find out what the new law offers to those with felony records, and how it stacks up against the three other new comprehensive expungement schemes in Arkansas, Indiana, and Minnesota. We found that while a relatively large number of people with felony convictions are newly eligible for expungement relief, the law’s effectiveness is hampered by 1) unreasonably long waiting periods and 2) limited effectiveness in mitigating collateral consequences related to employment and licensure. Read more