Our Nation is Fragmented Over Criminal Record Relief: Report

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Statue on the grounds of the Statehouse, Indianapolis, IN. Photo by David Cory via Flickr.

The road of opportunities and restored rights for the tens of millions of Americans following arrest or conviction of felonies or misdemeanors can be incredibly difficult to navigate — especially because of the criminal record that follows them. 

For these individuals, future opportunities can be snuffed out following legal consequences, discrimination based on publicly available criminal records, and frequent background checks that “operate as a form of ‘digital punishment.’ ”

Because of these reentry barriers, the Collateral Consequences Resource Center (CCRC) published a report on Tuesday following a national survey of laws and reforms that each state adheres to on its methodology for record relief through “expungement, sealing, and set-aside of conviction records.” 

After each state’s methodology was analyzed, the researchers created a report card with letter grades to give more context on how beneficial or detrimental the handling of criminal records can be for those who committed misdemeanors or felonies. 

Expunging, sealing, or setting aside the felony or misdemeanor records can help “alleviate the stigma and discrimination of a conviction record by restricting access to the record and/or vacating the conviction,” according to the CCRC report. 

But not everyone who has been accused or convicted of a crime has their record treated the same way.

The CCRC researchers found a serious lack of national guidance on how criminal record relief should be handled, and so state laws differ widely. 

Sometimes the state in which a crime was committed is the only thing determining whether or not a person can shed the crippling weight of their criminal record.

50 States Doing ‘50’ Different Things

State laws and policies that handle criminal record relief differ across the country so much so that the researchers were able to place all 50 states, the federal system, and the District of Columbia into five different categories: 

  • “Broader felony and misdemeanor relief (13 states);
  • Limited felony and misdemeanor relief (21 states);
  • Relief for pardoned convictions and for misdemeanors (4 states);
  • Misdemeanor relief only (4 states and D.C); and,
  • No general conviction record-revising relief (8 states, federal system).”

Broad criminal record relief encompasses a “relatively wide range of convictions” where, within 13 states including Arizona, Massachusetts, and Washington State, most criminal records are sealed if it’s a single conviction following a waiting period.

South Dakota introduced the nation’s first “automatic conviction-sealing law” that only applies to Class 2 misdemeanors after a 10-year waiting period. Pennsylvania followed with the Clean Slate Act of 2018, making a wide range of misdemeanor convictions automatically sealed, also after a 10-year waiting period. 

Illinois’ sealing laws are the most expansive in the country, in which “It extends eligibility to all but a few very serious felonies without regard to an applicant’s prior record, after a uniformly brief three-year waiting period,” the authors found. 

Maine, on the other hand, has “no general record-revision authority” and criminal record relief is only given to those convicted of “minor marijuana convictions” or “to victims of human trafficking.” 

Maryland is also on the “extreme” end of the spectrum, “authorizing expungement for only three specific felonies (theft, burglary, and drug possession with intent to distribute), after a 15-year conviction-free waiting period.”

As the CCRC researchers write, since there is no federal guideline on how to handle criminal record relief, each state is operating under their own system. 

Report Card

After each state was placed into its respective category, the researchers included a report card that graded each state’s misdemeanor and felony conviction relief laws. 

To put these ratings in a way that everyone can understand, the report card includes standard grades that students receive in educational settings. 

In this case, an “A” is the highest possible grade, indicating that the state offers the most felony and misdemeanor relief, through to an “F” indicating that the state does very little to nothing to help those with criminal records. 

Take Illinois, for example, where it’s mentioned above that many criminal records are sealed after a brief waiting-period—Illinois received two As for its treatment of misdemeanor and felony record relief. 

New York was given two Ds for its treatment of criminal records for misdemeanor and felony offenders, while California received a C for its treatment of felony records, but an A for misdemeanor record relief.

Overall, since state record relief orders don’t follow any federal guidelines, researchers note that relief of a criminal past is incredibly difficult and someone’s ability to shed the weight of a previous crime can truly boil down to the state where the crime was committed. 

The full survey and report card can be accessed here.  

Additional Reading: A ‘Record’ 152 Laws Reducing Reentry Barriers Passed in 2019, Published February 2020

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