Experts estimate that between 70 and 100 million Americans have criminal records. A criminal record can have a profound impact on one’s ability to lead a normal life, limiting, job, housing, and educational opportunities. This, in turn, costs the U.S. economy an estimated $78 billion, not including the impact on state and federal tax collections. Most states offer people an opportunity to clear criminal convictions, but some make the process harder than others.
While most criminal record reform bills in the past few years have been focused on marijuana-related offenses, in 2019 a few states passed laws expanding or automating the clearing of criminal records for other offenses. Some focused just on juvenile offenders, while others targeted adult records. Here are the most significant changes.
Colorado: Mass Pardons for Marijuana Possession Convictions
Colorado passed a statute in June 2020 that will allow the governor to grant mass pardons for minor marijuana possession convictions. Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012; anyone convicted of possessing marijuana before legalization can now be pardoned.
Georgia: Expanding Availability of Expungements
Georgia is currently considering a bill that would dramatically expand access to expungements for most non-violent crimes. Currently, only charges that don’t lead to conviction and misdemeanor convictions of underage offenders can be expunged in Georgia. The new bill would allow expungements of misdemeanors 3 years after the completion of any sentence or felonies 5 years after the completion of the sentence.
Indiana: Expungement Waiting Period Clarification
Indiana passed a new law in June 2020 clarifying its expungement waiting period. Existing Indiana law allowed convictions for non-violent offenses to be expunged after five years. The new law clarifies that the five-year waiting period starts on the date of the original conviction, even if the conviction is later downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Kentucky: Automatic Expungements of Charges on Acquittal or Dismissal
Kentucky updated its expungement law in March 2020 to require automatic expungement of any criminal charge that leads to an acquittal or is dismissed with prejudice. Previously, persons acquitted of a crime or whose charges were dropped had to file for expungement.
Michigan: Automatic Expungement for Juveniles, Automatic Expungements and Reduced Waiting Periods
A package of bills signed into law in November 2019 in Michigan makes major changes to the state’s juvenile criminal record procedures. Firstly, it raises the age at which a person can be charged as an adult from 17 to 18. Secondly, it allows a juvenile offender to petition for expungement one year after the end of supervision. Thirdly, it mandates that most criminal convictions for juveniles be expunged two years after the completion of sentencing or when the juvenile turns 18, whichever is later.
Michigan is currently considering several bills that would make the expungement process easier. The bills passed the state House in June and will be taken up by the Senate later in July. The bills would reduce the waiting period for expungements to 3 to 7 years depending on the type of offense, eliminate the waiting period for expunging a conviction for possessing an amount of marijuana that would now be legal, expand the number of convictions that can be expunged, and automatically expunge most misdemeanors after 7 years and most felonies after 10.
Nebraska: Automatic Sealing of Juvenile Records Expanded
Late last year, Nebraska made a number of changes to the process of sealing juvenile records. In particular, it allows juvenile convictions to be automatically sealed upon satisfactory completion of probation, supervision, or other treatment or rehabilitation program. No changes were made to the state’s law concerning adult convictions.
New Jersey: Clean Slate Law, Relaxed Expungement Requirement, Marijuana Expungements
Just before 2019 came to a close, New Jersey made some of the boldest changes to the expungement process of any state last year. The bill enacts several key changes:
- It adds a new “clean slate” law allowing all qualifying criminal records to automatically cleared after 10 years with no further convictions.
- For those with no felony convictions, the number of disorderly persons convictions a person can have on record and still qualify for an expungement increased from 4 to 5.
- An e-filing system is set to roll out in the near future so that individuals can file the petition online with no filing fee.
- Low-level marijuana convictions (under 1oz) must now be sealed immediately upon disposition.
In addition to these changes, NJ also restored voting rights to all residents on parole or probation.
New Mexico: First Expungement Law for Adult Crimes
As of January 1, 2020, the Criminal Record Expungement Act (CREA) authorizes New Mexico courts to expunge criminal records between two and 10 years after the conviction, depending upon the seriousness of the offense, with no intervening convictions. The individual must apply to have the record sealed and the court must find that “justice will be served by an order to expunge,” applying a multi-factor test. Prior to the passing of the expungement law, New Mexico could not seal or clear adult criminal records.
North Carolina: Expanded Expungement Eligibility
North Carolina passed a new law in June 2020 expanding eligibility for record expungement. Anyone convicted of non-violent misdemeanors can have the record expunged as long as it has been seven years since the last conviction and the sentence has been served. Non-violent felonies can be expunged after 10 years. Additionally, anyone who committed an offense as a juvenile may have their record expunged as long as the conviction wasn’t for a sex offense or motor vehicle offense.
Pennsylvania: Automatic Record Sealing After 10 Years & No Considering Criminal Records When Granting Occupational Licenses
Those with criminal records in PA can apply to have certain convictions expunged 5 years after the completion of sentencing. However, starting in June 2019, the state began sealing records that are more than 10 years old if they otherwise meet specific criteria. The sealed records will be more accessible to a wider variety of agencies than expunged records, but the automatic sealing removes the need to pay a filing fee and fill out paperwork.
Pennyslvania passed a law in July 2020 barring state licensing boards from considering a person’s criminal record when granting occupational licenses unless their crimes were directly related to the profession for which they’re seeking a license. Technically, this is not an expungement law; the licensing boards were already prohibited from considering expunged convictions. Instead, these boards cannot consider any criminal convictions unless related to the profession, whether expunged or not.
Utah: Automatic Expungements
In March 2019, Utah passed a “clean slate” law that will automatically clear records of a variety of criminal offenses when it takes effect on May 1, 2020. Certain infractions, misdemeanor convictions, and pleas in abeyance are eligible under a complex set of criteria. The automatic expungement will apply to convictions that predate the start of the new law and those that convictions that follow.
The person cannot have been convicted of more than:
- one felony; or
- two Class A misdemeanors committed in separate criminal episodes; or
- three class B misdemeanors committed in the same episode; or
- four convictions of any degree (excluding civil infractions and any traffic offenses).
The length of time one must wait before the record automatically clears depends on the most serious offense, and can be as little as three years or as long as 10 years.
Virginia: Automatic Expungement for Absolute Pardons
In February 2019, Virginia passed a bill that allows a person who received an “absolute” pardon to automatically have the record cleared—no petition needs to be filed. Without a pardon, however, individuals cannot clear a criminal conviction in Virginia.
West Virginia: Expanded Eligibility for Expungement
In June 2019, West Virginia bill SB 152 took effect, significantly expanding the availability of expungement. The new law extends eligibility for expungement beyond youthful misdemeanants and makes certain felonies eligible for expungement relief for the first time. Violent and sexual crimes are still ineligible. Under the new law, persons convicted of eligible misdemeanors may petition for expungement one year after conviction, or completion of incarceration or supervision if later. The waiting period is extended to two years for anyone convicted of more than one misdemeanor, and to five years for eligible felonies.
Wyoming: Juvenile Expungement Procedures
In July 2019, Wyoming made it easier for juveniles to clear their criminal records by removing the filing fee for the petition. The new also gives prosecutors just 20 days to object to a juvenile expungement petition, after which the court may summarily grant the request. In addition, a minor admitted to a diversion program or granted a deferral for adult criminal charges, or whose case did not result in a conviction or adjudication, may petition to expunge municipal and circuit court records as though the offense were a juvenile record.
These reforms represent significant progress toward reducing factors that cause recidivism. Still, there are many states that offer little or no opportunity for a person to clear a criminal record. Moreover, some states have significant obstacles that make it difficult for those who might otherwise qualify to get their records cleared.