New Jersey topped the list of 43 states that passed “consequential” legislation last year aimed at reducing barriers faced by people with criminal records in employment, voting, jury duty, and many other areas of daily life, according to a new report.
The states, along with the District of Columbia and the federal government, approved a record 152 laws in what the Collateral Consequences Resource Center (CCRC) called an “extraordinarily fruitful period of law reform in the United States.”
The CCRC said it was evidence of a growing trend across the country to remove the stigma of a criminal record from millions of Americans, and to provide them with a “fair chance” to reintegrate successfully in civil society.
The laws ranged from facilitating the expungement of criminal records for marijuana possession and the elimination of barriers to occupational licenses, to installing procedures for automatic record relief—addressing the complaints of many returning citizens that they were not made aware of the relief available to them.
Approximately 77 million Americans, or one in three adults, have a criminal record, according to 2018 data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The CCRC, a Washington, DC nonprofit which advocates for removing the “legal restrictions and societal stigma that burden people with a criminal record long after their criminal case is closed,” has been tracking legislative progress in this area since 2013.
The record number of laws passed in 2019 set in place a “reform trajectory [that] makes us optimistic that 2020 will be an even more productive year,” wrote authors Margaret Love and David Schlussel in their introduction to the report.
“We predict a continuing expansion of record-clearing opportunities, both for conviction and non-conviction dispositions,” they wrote.
“We also expect more efforts to automate record relief, with the accompanying simplification of eligibility criteria, improved records management by courts and records repositories, and better coordination of state and federal records systems.”
For the first time, the CCRC also included a “report card” measuring and comparing the progress of individual states. New Jersey won the title of “Reintegration Champion” for racking up what the report said was the most “consequential” legislative record last year.
Colorado was judged runner-up for enacting 10 laws that reduced barriers in areas such as employment and voting rights. Also noteworthy were Illinois, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota and West Virginia.
The worst grades went to Alaska, Georgia and Michigan.
New Jersey was singled out for passing three key bills—authorizing a “clean slate” expungement of criminal records for residents who have not committed an offense in ten years and who have not been convicted of the most serious crimes; restoring voting rights; and curbing driver’s license suspensions—that capped “in a single year a bolder set of reintegration laws than any other state in the country to the present time,” the report said.
Under the state’s voting reinfranchisement law, only those still in prison will be banned from voting—effectively restoring the franchise to some 80,000 New Jerseyans still under community supervision.
Most significantly, unlike similar efforts in other states, the law is virtually “politician-proof.” Since it is legislation rather an executive order, it will stay on the books even if the statehouse changes parties (unless a new majority of legislators tries to amend it).
Former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey said the package of record reforms was a “testament” to bipartisanship.
“We are blessed to have a broad coalition of elected officials, nonprofits, and activists who are committed to meaningful justice reform,” said McGreevey, who is now executive director of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation.
Perhaps the most significant development during this election year was the fact that 11 states “took steps” to restore the right to vote and expand awareness of voting eligibility to convicted individuals who have served out their sentences. Iowa is now the only state that does not restore the vote automatically to individuals who lose the franchise when they are convicted, the report said.
Kentucky passed one of the most dramatic expansions of voting rights last year when Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order restoring in one stroke the vote and eligibility for office for an estimated 140,000 individuals convicted of non-violent crimes who had served their sentences. Prior to the law, petitions had to be submitted individually.
Although the most sweeping voting legislation was passed in Colorado, Nevada and New Jersey, many other states took “less dramatic but significant steps to expand the franchise,” the report said.
The authors noted that a Florida law qualifying the voting rights restored by a 2018 ballot initiative has been successfully challenged in federal court. At issue is whether re-enfranchisement may depend upon payment of financial penalties, which has implications for other states’ re-enfranchisement schemes.
Some 20 states enacted laws during 2019 providing more transparent rules for granting occupational licenses in a broad variety of fields to convicted individuals. And Illinois expanded its Human Rights Law to expand access to public housing for those with criminal records.
“Ban the Box” laws preventing public employers for requesting criminal history in job application forms are now in place in 35 states and the District of Columbia; and 13 states have enacted legislation covering private employers as well.
The report also took note of the passage by Congress last year of restrictions on pre-employment inquiries by federal agencies and contractors about criminal records, limiting the use of background checks only after a conditional offer of employment has been made.
On expungement, 31 states and Washington DC passed a total of 67 bills that expanded or streamlines the permanent removal, sealing or vacating of criminal records. Another seven states authorized record relief for certain marijuana offenses
The authors noted that the prospects for new legislative action are hampered in some cases by resistance from prosecutors.
“Many prosecutors seem out of step with the philosophy animating record reform in legislatures, although there is a growing ‘progressive prosecutors’ movement that recognizes how important reintegration is to public safety,” the report said.
Download the full report here.
This summary was prepared by Stephen Handelman, executive editor of The Crime Report