Both Minnesota and the nation have a strong tradition of awarding people second chances. Sometimes it takes more than the stroke of a pen to accomplish meaningful and enduring reforms. Minnesota is now poised to fine-tune its law to allow more chances for people who want to move on from past transgressions and positively contribute to society.
Within the accounting that is going on of the treatment of citizens in all facets of life — ranging from transportation and housing policy, occupational licensing, access to financial products and more — is a vastly increased scrutiny of uneven law enforcement and outcomes in the criminal justice system. This includes policing.
It doesn’t require special research to understand that criminal records can negatively affect an individual in nearly every critical aspect of modern life in America. These blots on an individual’s record can affect job prospects, housing, education, and eligibility for financial products. They can promote social stigma in many instances. It costs our country as well. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated in 2016 — before some recent efforts to remedy the effects of this burden — that reductions in employment attributed to the proliferation of felony convictions had cost the nation $78 billion to $87 billion in annual gross domestic product in 2014.
Justice Department-published research indicates that, after a few years, people carrying criminal records are statistically no more likely to commit crimes than anybody else in the general population. It is obvious that if most or even many impediments to jobs and professions are removed, the likelihood is even stronger.
As some states have adopted expungement practices for hundreds of nonviolent crimes, there are encouraging developments of this policy change that stand out. Pennsylvania passed automatic expungement reform (nicknamed “Clean Slate”) in 2018 and is well on its way to providing second chances for residents by sealing up to 30 million low-level criminal records. Michigan found, on average, a greater than 22% increase in income beyond the economic expectation within a year of the expungement in comparison to their previous practices; the state recently enacted comprehensive legislation to build on this success.
These recent experiences also have revealed a weakness in the existing expungement process. To date, this process typically requires an application to the court, the payment of a fee, the probable hiring of a lawyer, and some period of time. This includes the required determination to see if one is eligible; requesting records, which involves another fee; and, at times, weeks to receive the records before requesting a ruling from a judge or magistrate. Sometimes a hearing is required. The whole process can take months, especially now with court loads exacerbated by pandemic protocols.
This is why Michigan revisited its system and enacted automatic expungement for many crimes, which goes into effect this month. The 2019 Michigan study showed that only 6.5% of the people eligible for expungement were able to complete the process within five years. When New York expanded eligibility for expungement to an additional 600,000 or so people in 2017, it found that less than 1% of people had actually gotten an expungement two years later. This represents a considerable shift to improving the criminal-justice system.
The Minnesota Legislature has introduced bills in both chambers this session — Senate File 1856 and House File 1152 — to modernize the expungement process based on the research and experience of those few states that already have reformed their systems. Given the tragic events involving George Floyd last year, the nationwide protests that followed, the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin, and the police shooting this week in suburban Minneapolis, the timing could not be more ripe to take the steps necessary to enact reforms, given Minnesota’s current status as ground zero in the nationwide conversation on criminal justice. We hope Minnesota steers into the vanguard of states that sees both the compassion and the practical aspects of positively affecting outcomes in the criminal-justice system.
Alan Smith of Columbus, Ohio, is the Midwest director and is a resident senior fellow at the R Street Institute (rstreet.org), a right-of-center think tank based in Washington, D.C. He wrote this for the News Tribune.