Sheena Meade knows what it’s like to be a finalist for a job, only to have the interviewer ask, “Tell me about that felony from 18 years ago.”
Those experiences now inform Meade’s work as CEO of the Clean Slate Initiative, a national nonprofit that works to expand and automate the sealing of arrest and conviction records after people have completed their sentences and remained crime-free for a period of time.
Every state has a procedure that allows some people with criminal records to clear them by petitioning a judge or court. These procedures, however, can be baffling and cumbersome. In many instances, people are never notified or instructed if, when or how their records can be cleared. Sometimes, the process is so complicated and the terminology so confusing that it requires hiring an attorney or paying expensive filing fees.
“A lot of folks do silly things when they are 18, 19, 20 years old. They get arrested, but the charges get dropped or they are not convicted. Then, 30 years later, there it is.”
—Nilo Cuervo, Florida’s deputy chief assistant state attorney
A bipartisan group of state legislators recently gathered in Miami at NCSL’s Clean Slate Record Clearing meeting to discuss policy solutions and ways to simplify the record-clearing or sealing process. In addition to Meade, the group heard from other legislators, experts and criminal justice stakeholders and learned about the “clean slate” policy model, which uses technology to begin a government-initiated record-clearing process if a person stays crime-free. Often, these policies are described as “automatic” record-clearing.
Florida law allows people with arrest records—but not convictions—to get those records sealed. But an innovative community clinic, with what is considered one of the nation’s best assistance programs, fails to meet the overwhelming need for its service, attorneys say.
“There were five and a half million records eligible for sealing in Florida,” Carlos J. Martinez, a public defender, told legislators. “Even if our office was working nonstop processing applications, we would never catch up.” When discussing the amount of salary time taken up by processing applications, Martinez said, “If you can set up an automatic process, fund that—because it pretty much pays for itself.”
About 10 states in the last six years have indeed set up these automatic record-clearing processes. In 2017, Pennsylvania was the first state to pass a clean slate law, and the group heard about the importance of bipartisanship from the primary sponsors of the bill. Despite their disagreement on most issues, Pennsylvania Reps. Jordan Harris (D) and Sheryl Delozier (R) said they are able to continually find common ground when it comes to clean slate. The laws might be a solution to the confusing citizen-petition process, the lawmakers said, but every state must find its own starting point when it comes to implementation and eligibility.
There also are implementation challenges, said David Roberts, CEO of SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. “Automatic” record clearing is far from automatic in reality. Not all court systems are unified in one place, and even if there is a centralized system, a lot of thought needs to be put into which records should be sealed. But the challenges are not insurmountable.
“Perfect cannot be the enemy of good,” said Alia Toran-Burrell, of Code for America, which has helped states with program implementation. “If we wait for data and systems to be perfect, we are going to be waiting for a long time.”
Concerns About Victims
Many legislative participants were concerned about how an automatic record-clearing process would affect victims of crime. Michigan Rep. Graham Filler (R) said his state’s clean slate laws focus on limiting eligible cases to those without a traditional victim, such as simple possession of cannabis.
Before crafting legislation, it’s important to work with criminal justice stakeholders to identify the types of convictions being cleared and to ensure victims concerns are addressed, said Noella Sudbury, CEO of Rasa Public Benefit Corp.
Impact of Record Clearing
Nilo Cuervo, Florida’s deputy chief assistant state attorney, said what drives him is when people come back to the expungement workshop and share how it helped them get a job.
“A lot of folks do silly things when they are 18, 19, 20 years old,” he told lawmakers. “They get arrested, but the charges get dropped or they are not convicted. Then, 30 years later, there it is.”
Anne Teigen is an associate director in NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program and Michael Hartman is a policy associate in the program.