Webinar: Growing Momentum for Clean Slate and Fair Chance Licensing in the States

In an April 2021 event, the Center for American Progress, National Employment Law Project, and Community Legal Services of Philadelphia hosted a conversation with several of the state leaders behind recent transformative policy wins that offer a model for state and federal policymakers to put second chances within reach for workers and families facing the stigma of a criminal record.

The event highlighted that, in recognition that a criminal record should not be a life sentence to poverty and joblessness, bipartisan momentum for both “clean slate” automatic record clearance and fair chance licensing has exploded in recent years, with dozens of states advancing these policy reforms to remove barriers to economic security for their justice-impacted residents. As leaders at all levels of government work to “build back better,” removing barriers to employment for workers with records is even more urgently needed amid the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and downturn to ensure not only a full but an equitable recovery that does not leave tens of millions of justice-impacted individuals and families behind.

The event was moderated by Rebecca Vallas, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress and featured distinguished guests Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist of Michigan as well as panelists:

Rep. Jordan Harris (D), Minority Whip, Pennsylvania General Assembly
Sharon Dietrich, Litigation Director, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia
Josh Hoe, Policy Analyst, Safe and Just Michigan
Whitley Carpenter, Criminal Justice Staff Attorney, Forward Justice
Jael Myrickr, Interim Director, Clean Slate Practice, East Bay Community Law Center

Access the recorded event from the Center for American Progress

JPMorgan Chase & Company’s Jamie Dimon Talks Second Chance Hiring

In an August 2021 opinion guest essay in The New York Times, JPMorgan Chase & Company chairman and chief executive Jamie Dimon expresses his “moral outrage” for the more than 70 million Americans with an arrest or criminal record that face financial, legal and logistical roadblocks that prevent them from securing good jobs after after they have paid their debt to society. He points to the fact that nearly half of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed one year after leaving prison.

“This group is ready to work and deserves a second chance — an opportunity to fill the millions of job openings across the country. Yet our criminal justice system continues to block them from doing so.”

In the essay, Dimon discusses the steps JPMorgan Chase & Company have taken to help overcome some of these barriers, including “banning the box” asking about a candidate’s criminal or arrest records on initial job applications, establishing a Second Chance hiring program, that provides legal services, job search support and mentorship, and partnered with other employers like Accenture, CVS, Eaton, General Motors, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Verizon and Walmart to form the Second Chance Business Coalition, which allows businesses to develop and share best practices and test new approaches to help support the hiring and advancement of people with criminal backgrounds.

“In part because of these efforts, we hired approximately 2,100 people with a criminal background in 2020 — roughly 10 percent of our new hires in the United States that year.”

Despite these highlights in the corporate world, Dimon expresses that “to create real systemic change, we need better public policy.” He points to the various forms of “Clean Slate” legislation making their way through Congress and U.S. state capitals, aimed at helping clear or seal eligible criminal records, open access to jobs and increase earnings by about 20 percent. He points also to the great progress states like Pennsylvania, Utah, Michigan, New Jersey, Virginia, Connecticut and Delaware have made in passing or enacting similar bipartisan clean slate legislation but contends that C.E.O.s and community leaders must urge more states and the federal government to pursue similar legislative solutions.

Read Dimon’s full essay in The New York Times

Public Defender Rethinks Lawyers’ Role in Record Clearance

by Rashawn Davis, CSG Justice Center Staff 

Damon Parrish II is an assistant public defender with the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in Houston, Texas.

When Damon Parrish began studying at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, he had no interest in eventually practicing criminal law. With a background in computer science, he was much more interested in intellectual property—that is, until he interned with the Harris County (TX) District Attorney’s Office. There, he saw firsthand the lasting negative effects a criminal record could have on a person’s life.

“You don’t want to have someone’s entire life to be, ‘at 21, I committed robbery, and now I am 48 and still paying for it,’” he said. “You don­­’t want that, an­­d it’s not fair or good for society.”

After a brief stint in private practice, Parrish joined the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, where he is an assistant public defender. He also volunteers providing indigent defense in communities around the county. As a volunteer lawyer, he meets clients attempting to seal their criminal records—which sometimes include only a single charge or conviction that is, in some cases, more than 20 years old. Parrish says it’s rewarding to watch clients who are able to have their criminal records sealed. Some of those clients have gone on to have successful careers, something he acknowledges can be difficult to achieve with a criminal record.

“I was able to see how they were able to continue forth with their lives and earn college degrees,” he remembers.

The impact of criminal record clearance became clear in Parrish’s personal life as well as in his work. Soon after joining the public defender’s office, he learned that a close friend had been arrested at 18 and was able to have their record expunged. That friend has now become a successful accountant.

“But,” Parrish says. “He had the benefit of having his record cleared.”

Not everyone who has a criminal record may have the option to clear it once the case has been resolved—many people accept a plea deal or case resolution that could make their record ineligible for clearance in the future. Parrish considers understanding which charges and case resolutions are potentially eligible for clearance part of his responsibility as a defense attorney.

“Primarily, [my] goal is to secure an outcome for my client that is beneficial. And when I say that, I don’t just mean ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty,’ but something that helps them not have their entire life be representative of this one particular issue,” he states.

However, even when people are eligible for record clearing, it’s not always pursued. Often, Parrish acknowledges, financial constraints pressure clients to focus on short-term goals like getting out of the courtroom and back to work instead of the long-term goal of clearing the criminal record.

“When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, your immediate goal is not record clearing but being done with this and [being] able to get back to work,” he explains.

The record clearance process can be costly as well as time consuming. In addition to statutory fees, the process can include hiring an attorney separate from the one that litigated your defense to guide you through clearance. This often creates an even greater financial burden for the client to take on. And while some legal service organizations may offer free or discounted services for record clearance, these resources may be limited. Additionally, the clearance process involves many complex steps, something Parrish says also discourages clients from pursuing their expungement or sealing options.

For Parrish, these burdens are especially harsh for people whose charges have been dismissed or who were found not guilty. In cases such as these, he says, pertinent charges should be cleared from the person’s record automatically.

Parrish is optimistic about the future of criminal record clearance in Texas from watching the experiences of his clients. Fueling that optimism is the fact that legislators around the country are beginning to have substantive dialogues about reforming criminal justice systems, specifically regarding record clearance. Parrish also looks forward to expanding record clearance programming locally through his work at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office.

Parrish believes public defenders will play a critical role in expanding record clearance by informing policymakers about the effects it has on recidivism and outcomes. This is particularly due to public defenders’ deep knowledge of the criminal justice system, the people involved in it, and communities impacted by it.

Someday, he expects, policies around clearance will include a broader set of offenses eligible for record clearance, as well as automatic implementation of that clearance, which will make record clearance more accessible for those eligible for it.

Or, as he puts it, “the law will catch up.”

The statements made reflect the views of the subject and authors and should not be considered the official position of The Council of State Governments Justice Center, members of The Council of State Governments, or the funding agency supporting the work.

Webinar: Facts and Myths: Health Care Employment Opportunities for People with Criminal Records

Hosted by the National Reentry Resource Center with funding support from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance

Health care is one of the fastest-growing employment sectors in the country, with the demand for qualified workers greatly exceeding supply in many areas. But people who have criminal records are often unable to enter or advance within this relatively high-paying sector due to a complex web of legal barriers that make jobs and licenses difficult or impossible to obtain.

This webinar separates the myths from the facts about these barriers in order to develop a better understanding of the true scope and impact of employment-related collateral consequences in the health care sector.

In the webinar, presenters:

  • Provide an overview of the state and federal laws and policies that limit health care employment opportunities for people with criminal records
  • Discuss what health care employers are doing to expand opportunities for workers with criminal records and examine the impact those efforts have had on their workforce
  • Present models for cooperation between reentry service providers and health care employers that are aimed at placing qualified workers with criminal records in stable jobs in the sector

Panelists include:

  • Reginald Allen, Talent Acquisition Consultant, Mission-Based Programs, AMITA Health System
  • Josh Gaines, Senior Policy Analyst, The Council of State Governments Justice Center
  • Sofi Martinez, Social Science Analyst, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Sodiqa R. Williams, Esq., General Counsel and Vice President, External Affairs, Safer Foundation

Clean Slate Campaign Targets Record Clearance “Gap” In States

By CSG Justice Center Staff

Although every state allows for the clearance of at least some types of criminal records, there is a significant gap between the records eligible for clearance and those that actually end up getting removed from easy public access. This “second chance gap” often stems from a lack of awareness of the record clearance process and from the complications associated with getting a record cleared. Many people with criminal records do not know that their records are eligible for clearance. Those who do know and want to clear their records are generally required to file a formal request in court. Such filings often require the help of a lawyer and the payment of fees, sometimes totaling hundreds of dollars.

To help reduce these complications and close this gap, the Center for American Progress, along with 31 partner organizations, launched the Clean Slate Campaign in November 2018. The campaign aims to pass state legislation across the country that would make record clearance automatic for certain low-level conviction and non-conviction records, so that people with eligible records do not have to navigate the court system or pay any fees in order to have their records cleared. Pennsylvania was the first state in the nation to pass this kind of law. The Clean Slate Act, which was signed in June 2018, sets up an automated system that will regularly identify charges eligible to be cleared, notify the state repository of criminal records, and seal the records. (For more on this law, see Pennsylvania Becomes First State in Nation to Automate Record Clearance.) In late March Utah became the second state to enact a clean slate law, providing for automatic expungement of non-conviction and some conviction records. The campaign is now looking to other states where criminal record data systems might be suited to the automated approach.

Record clearance can benefit people who struggle to enter or advance in the workforce because of a criminal history, as well as employers eager for workers in a tight labor market. The Clean Slate Campaign posits that as more people with criminal records get good jobs, the country will see improvements in family stability, community safety, and fiscal health.

Report Breaks Down a Big Year in Record Clearance

By CSG Justice Center Staff

2018 was a busy year for fair chance hiring and criminal record clearance legislation, according to the Collateral Consequences Resource Center (CCRC). As detailed in the report, Reducing Barriers to Reintegration: Fair Chance and Expungement Reforms in 2018, 32 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands enacted a total of 61 new laws aimed at lessening or avoiding the collateral consequences of arrest or conviction. Looking specifically at record clearance, the CCRC found that:

  • Twenty states passed a total of 29 laws that expand opportunities for people to make a fresh start by clearing their records, and
  • Of these states, four—Pennsylvania, California, Vermont, and South Dakota—created record clearance systems that , instead of putting the burden on people with records.

The report describes most record clearance laws passed in 2018 as “incremental expansions of existing law, reflecting refinements based on experience and local political dynamics,” rather than extensive new schemes. Waiting periods were shortened, eligible offenses were expanded, and expedited procedures were created to clear non-conviction, juvenile, and decriminalized offense records. A notable exception to the incremental approach is Pennsylvania’s path-breaking Clean Slate Act, which will automate the sealing of hundreds of thousands of non-conviction and some low-level conviction records beginning in June 2020. For more on this law, see Pennsylvania Becomes First State in Nation to Automate Record Sealing.

Reporting and Criminal Records: Three Tips for Journalists

By CSG Justice Center Staff

Criminal record clearance laws are increasingly being implemented across the country, resulting in more and more people becoming eligible to have their criminal record cleared. As a result, there is an increasing conversation among legal practitioners, advocates, and journalists about what considerations should be taken when reporting on record clearance—also known as expungement or sealing, among other terms—and telling the stories of the people it affects.

In response to this growing interest, the Clean Slate Clearinghouse (CSC) hosted a webinar that discussed effective practices that reporters can use when writing stories about people who have criminal records. The webinar, which took place on June 13th, featured a discussion between The Wall Street Journal’s Corinne Ramey, a reporter who covers courts and criminal justice, and Chidi Umez, project manager of the criminal records project at The Council of State Governments Justice Center. During the hour-long conversation, the presenters discussed journalistic practices to keep in mind when writing criminal justice stories, as well as resources journalists can use to inform their reporting. Below are three considerations for journalists covering criminal justice topics, which are informed by the webinar discussion, questions from webinar participants, and recommendations from the CSC advisors.

1. “Humanize” the story: Focus on people

When reporting on stories about the criminal justice system, and those who may have or have had criminal records, speaking with the people behind the issues may help to create a piece that is relatable to a wider audience. Focusing on the people, not just the policies, as appropriate for the story, can help to underscore the breadth of the issues at hand.

  • Consider the impact of the story on a person’s life. Recognize that the information presented in a story can follow a person for many years; these articles are often not affected by expungement orders. Communities of color, who are most impacted by their contact with the criminal justice system, are especially vulnerable to the consequences that follow from stories highlighting their criminal histories.
  • Be open with the interviewee about all the information you will include in the story to reduce the probability of surprises or inaccurate storytelling.

2. Consider language in reporting

Words that describe a criminal record or involvement with the criminal justice system as a person’s defining characteristic may overshadow more important aspects of the story. Although limited word counts can often hinder efforts to accommodate this nuance—particularly in a headline—and the editorial standards and style guides used by various publications differ on how to describe a person who has a criminal history, legal practitioners and advocates agree that certain terms should be used conscientiously.

  • Avoid terms such as “felon,” “offender,” “convict,” or “inmate.” These terms may not only contribute to the social stigmas that affect people who have criminal records, but may also be factually inaccurate based on the person’s circumstance. While a large number of people have criminal records due to incarceration or a felony conviction, many others have criminal records based on other factors, such as an arrest that did not lead to a conviction.
  • Instead, focus on people-centric language. Consider phrasing such as “person who has a criminal record,” “person in the criminal justice system,” “person who is incarcerated,” “person who is in prison/jail custody,” or “person convicted of a crime/felony/misdemeanor.”

3. Balance public safety concerns and the individual’s privacy

Much of what makes a story compelling comes from the reader having enough information to grasp the full picture of the situation at hand. But at times, when telling the stories of people who have criminal records, it may be challenging to balance transparency for the sake of public safety with individual privacy.

  • Consider public safety when choosing to include a person’s criminal record information. Weigh the public’s “need to know,” including any safety issues that may arise in the community based on withholding information about the crimes a person has committed, with the effects the story would have on the person if their criminal history were to be included. This may help to ensure the information does not create unnecessary damage in a person’s life.
  • Include a person’s record clearance history in stories where a person has gone through the process of clearing their record, if they have given their permission. This is important particularly in circumstances where the criminal history information may still be available to the public, despite efforts to limit such access through the formal clearance process.

For more information about reporting on people who have criminal records and criminal record clearance, see Considerations for Journalists Writing about People Who Have Criminal Histories.

Photo credit Joanne Harris and Daniel Bubnich/Shutterstock.com

Warden-Turned-Professor Pushes New Perspective on Collateral Consequences

By Rashawn Davis and Carla Sinclair, CSG Justice Center staff

 Arthur “Art” Beeler is a clinical assistant professor at North Carolina Central University. He has worked in corrections since 1975, most recently as a complex warden at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina (FCC Butner), until his retirement in 2009. Beeler has been published in scholarly journals on criminal justice topics and regularly speaks on the subject. He has won several awards for his work, including the U.S. Surgeon General’s Medallion.

In the 1980s, a man named Bob was convicted of possession with intent to distribute and served five years in a North Carolina prison as a result. When Bob was released from prison, he began to turn his life around: He got married, attained a barber’s license, and went on to work for nearly 20 years as a barber.

One day, Bob decided that he wanted to open his own barber shop. He went to a government loan agency to seek funds to start the new business, but the loan was denied. Art Beeler thinks Bob was denied the loan because of his criminal record—and he doesn’t think that’s how the system should work.

Beeler worked in corrections for more than 30 years, beginning his career as a volunteer probation officer and ending up as complex warden at FCC Butner. In that time, Beeler saw his fair share of reentry stories, but Bob’s stuck with him. Beeler confesses that this story, more than anything else, got him involved in working to reduce the burdens of collateral consequences on people who have criminal records and are trying to rebuild their lives.

“[Bob] was doing day to day work, taking care of his family, and raising his kids . . . a good, solid man,” Beeler said. “This was a young man who was trying to make the American dream happen and had worked diligently for 20 years to make it happen. And he was denied that because he had a felony conviction.”

Beeler admits that he did not know much about collateral consequences early in his career. However, stories like Bob’s quickly showed him the adverse impact a person’s criminal record could have on their future success, including employment opportunities, which is a critical part of reentry.

“I continued to see people coming back [to prison] and I thought we had to do something better,” he said.

While some collateral consequences are necessary, Beeler says, “many of them do not have a nexus to public safety” and only create obstacles for those trying to rebuild their lives after leaving jail or prison. These policies, he said, should be reviewed by policymakers and stakeholders.

In addition to that kind of legislative action, Beeler also points to record clearance as a useful tool for people with first-time offenses and misdemeanors seeking employment, particularly young people.

“Being able to say no, I’ve never been convicted of a misdemeanor, would make a huge difference for a lot of folks,” he said.

Beeler also notes, however, that “institutional memories are long.” In small communities throughout the country, record clearance may be less effective because members of the community often know who has had a criminal record, even if it’s been cleared. As a result, these people may continue to face employment difficulties because of their criminal history regardless of “if it’s on a piece of paper or not.” That’s why he says working directly with people to help them overcome the collateral consequences they face is necessary, too. As a corrections administrator, Beeler wanted to contribute—so he took things into his own hands.

He started working with the late Duke Law School Professor Judge Robinson Everett, conducting seminars that taught people incarcerated at FCC Butner skills and information they would need when reentering the community . As the complex warden at FCC Butner, Beeler became a champion of public-private partnerships that benefitted both people who were incarcerated and local employers. Most notably, he worked with the Meineke Car Care Center corporation to provide mechanic training to qualified men in prison. Successful completion of the training led to employment at Meineke upon release.

The Meineke program was small but effective, according to Beeler, and provided employment for men returning home with criminal records. The results were long-lasting: several of the men that came through that program became managers with Meineke.

Beeler admits that partnerships such as the one he helped create with Meineke require extensive collaboration and the willingness of private sector leaders to hire people who have criminal records. However, the low national unemployment rate and high demand for workers make the present time ripe for similar partnerships that could benefit employers and increase the number of job opportunities for people who have criminal records.

For Beeler, it all starts with education. Educating people who are incarcerated about collateral consequences is critical in preparing them for reentry and employment. Providing people with information on how specific collateral consequences can affect their employment opportunities is key for them to assess which type of skills training they should devote time to while incarcerated—for instance, not training for a job that requires an occupational license for which people with a record are ineligible.

“Many don’t even know what their collateral consequences are most of the time,” Beeler said. “They don’t even know that they might not be able to get a job that they trained [in prison or jail] to get.”

It isn’t just people returning from incarceration that don’t understand the impact of collateral consequences. Since retiring from FCC Butner, Beeler has taught at several universities, including Duke. A few years ago he walked into a seminar where only two of the 24 third-year law students he was teaching could correctly define what collateral consequences were. As an educator and former corrections administrator, Beeler often emphasizes the importance of future defense attorneys and prosecutors understanding what collateral consequences are and how they affect people’s lives. He believes this knowledge allows his students to think more critically about the role they will play in the justice system.

“You have to be able to not put everyone in the same box,” he said. “You have to be able to look at people and make judgements based upon the situational factors.”

With Data, Naomi Maisel Helps Lay Career Foundations for People with Criminal Records

By Rashawn Davis and Carla Sinclair, CSG Justice Center staff

Naomi Maisel is the director of operations-community outreach for First Step Staffing in Atlanta, Georgia. She graduated from Emory University.

More often than not, the hardest part about getting a job for people who have criminal records is getting their foot in the door. Being given the opportunity to show they can work is the first step to building a more stable life, and First Step Staffing is using data to make it happen.

Aptly named, First Step Staffing was founded in Atlanta in 2007 as a nonprofit staffing agency with the mission to secure stable employment and income for people transitioning from homelessness, many of whom also have criminal records. When First Step first began, the small nonprofit helped connect 100 people each day to employment. Today, the staffing organization has grown in both scope and impact, helping to employ nearly 1,000 people every day in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Nashville. Such a high volume of service requires and produces a great amount of data; that data is handled by Maisel.

Maisel started at First Step as an intern, hired to help the organization develop its metrics and key performance indicators. She went on to build the organization’s data system and was offered a full-time job as a project manager and subsequently promoted to operations director. She has since helped grow First Step’s outreach and specialized the agency’s service partnerships based on the data and information collected about the needs of clients through analysis and community outreach.

“There was no program for [metrics], so I did that, and it got really exciting,” she said. “I didn’t know I would be passionate about it, but I was.”

Like other staffing agencies, First Step acts as the intermediary between employers and job seekers; the agency interviews, conducts a background check on, and hires the applicant, who then goes on to work for one of the businesses with whom the agency contracts. First Step is the legal employer and pays the employees’ salaries, while the business it services provide the positions and pay First Step a fee. People who are experiencing homelessness or have criminal records and other barriers to employment can complete the entire job application process with First Step. This model, according to Maisel, takes some of the perceived risk associated with hiring people with criminal records from businesses because First Step is the “employer of record” and is responsible for the workers’ compensation and liability insurance. In hundreds of cases, these employees are then hired full-time by the businesses once they have established a good work ethic and demonstrate success in the work environment. 

“What’s great about this model is that it gives the employer the peace of mind that we’re taking on the risk,” she said. “It enables us to give work to people who wouldn’t normally be able to get that position.”

The agency fills “light industrial” positions, which can range from warehouse distribution to food processing and packaging. Through many partnerships with a large number of local businesses, First Step is often able to provide positions to people whose criminal records may prevent them from working in certain industries, increasing their chance of placement and success.

“If a client has a bunch of DUIs, we can’t put them in our driving (jobs) but we can put them somewhere else,” she said. “With folks with different criminal backgrounds, we have so many customers—about 100-plus employers in Atlanta right now—that usually there’s something for everyone.”

The model has proven effective, with nearly two-thirds of clients making it to the six-month mark at their respective jobs. For those who don’t make it to that six-month mark, Maisel points to recidivism and communication gaps, as well as general “volatility” in their lives, as some of the many reasons clients stop working. She admits that more can be done, which is why First Step recently rolled out its “Response Interventions” study.

This six-month study used data to identify all new clients who worked 10 hours or fewer during their first month of employment. First Step staff reached out to these clients to figure out whether they need additional resources, such as housing and transportation, to succeed in their new roles. This pilot was possible through Maisel’s data collection and First Step’s many partnerships with other reentry organizations in the area; it also provided important insight on the bigger picture of the barriers to employment that this population faces and allows First Step to build more intentional support systems to lessen these barriers.

“Number one, we’re intervening before it gets bad and before they lose their job,” Maisel said. “Number two, we’re getting really good data on why people are falling off. Is it because of transportation? Is it because of childcare? We don’t know until we get the data.”

Another place Maisel hopes to see data and automation play a larger role in is record clearance. Drawing from her own experience running background checks on job seekers, Maisel said even the act of attempting to go through long documents to find expungeable records can be a potential barrier.

“It is very confusing and can be intimidating for clients to go down that path,” she said. “And when your life is so volatile, you don’t have time to go back and forth with a lawyer to try and fix it.”

Maisel thinks an automated record clearing system will help ease some of those burdens for people and, consequently, facilitate increased access to employment. While she has heard dialogue about record clearance among civic leaders, she hopes to see the conversation expand to include more policymakers. In the meantime, Maisel plans to continue growing First Step’s footprint in Atlanta, as well as in other cities across the country, because she has seen firsthand how life-changing employment can be.

There may be few better examples of that notion than Peter.[i] Peter came to First Step shortly after he was released from prison and had been turned down by other staffing agencies for employment because of his criminal record. First Step helped Peter, guiding him through the application process and ultimately securing him employment at Sun Trust Park, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team. Peter excelled. He was eventually brought on as a full-time employee with benefits, and was honored as “Employee of the Month” at the park.

Though not all clients end up like Peter, the impact First Step, its community resources, and its targeted data have on the people it works to employ is clear. Maisel recounts how First Step played a role even at the ceremony where Peter received his Employee of the Month award

“[Peter] doesn’t have any family, and one of the things that spoke to me a lot about his story was that a couple of First Step members went to the ceremony to be his ‘family,’” she said. “He completely flipped his life around.”

[i] The person’s name has been changed to protect their privacy.

Judge Kevin Burke Takes on Record Clearance from the Bench

By Rashawn Davis and Carla Sinclair, CSG Justice Center staff

Kevin Burke is a District Court Judge in Hennepin County, Minnesota. There, he was elected to four terms as Chief Judge and three terms as Assistant Chief Judge. From 1991-1996, he served as the Chair of the Conference of Chief Justices. Judge Burke teaches trial practice at the University of Minnesota Law School and criminal procedure at the University of St. Thomas Law School. 

In Minnesota District Court Judge Kevin Burke’s mind, “a society that wants to grow needs to realize that people will make mistakes, and that many of those people deserve a second chance.”

The state-level judicial system plays a role in making that society a reality, said Judge Burke, especially when it comes to clearing criminal records and allowing people to put their past behind them.

Judge Burke started his judiciary career as a district court judge in 1984. Since then, he has heard thousands of cases and, in 1995, started Minnesota’s first drug court, citing the need for greater fairness in the criminal justice system. With the drug court, he reduced the time it took for cases to be heard, a move that ensured people—and their cases—didn’t get lost in the system, which promoted efficiency and got more people access to the resources they needed. Judge Burke grew the innovative court model to become one of the largest drug courts in the United States, and his work has subsequently led him to 40 states and 8 countries to speak about improving criminal justice systems.

As a judge involved in criminal justice reform, the impact criminal records can have on a person has never been far from Judge Burke’s mind. Over his 34 years of public service, he has seen many people struggle because of the legal and regulatory sanctions and restrictions associated with their criminal record, also known as collateral consequences.

“With the internet, with computers, with the background checks that occur all over the place, we’re in an era in which there really is no forgiveness,” Judge Burke said. “And it can inhibit somebody’s ability to be successful and a contributing member of society.”

Judge Burke recalls a case of a woman who approached his court looking to expunge her criminal record. She had been working at a bank for more than 15 years and had recently received a promotion, which required a routine background check. The check uncovered a criminal record that stemmed from a fight she and a partner had while in college, which ended in them both being arrested.

Rather than an extended legal proceeding, she decided to plead guilty and put the incident behind her. After going on to receive a master’s degree, she had a successful career at the bank—until the background check. Her employer not only revoked the promotion, but threatened to let her go unless she removed the decades-old conviction from her record. Judge Burke ultimately granted her the expungement, but the story stuck with him.

“Decent people can end up in a situation in which the consequences of having a public record of your misdeed vastly outweighs its importance to anybody,” he said. “A lot of people who do a great job aren’t allowed to do it.”

Criminal records don’t just affect a person’s employment outcomes, but often beget barriers to housing and education as well, which can lead to decreased financial opportunities.

These barriers are especially felt in communities of color where Judge Burke describes criminalization as “a big problem.” Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. This incarceration disparity often leads to widespread and lasting effects of collateral consequences that affect some communities more than others.

Referencing the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report—a 1968 report on race relations in America that found less social and economic opportunities for black people than for white— Judge Burke believes that its findings are still relevant today.

“There’s a recent report that went to look at, well, where are we 50 years after the Kerner Commission? And the answer is, in some areas we’re significantly worse,” he said.

In regard to record clearance as a whole, Judge Burke acknowledges that work is already being done by state lawmakers in his home state of Minnesota around record clearance and collateral consequences. However, he says that more work remains to be done. This includes rethinking the pardon system in states like Minnesota, where Judge Burke believes many more people have the potential to benefit from pardon review than do so currently.

“There are thousands of people with small criminal records,” Judge Burke said “…those little cases have enormous collateral consequences to people.”

Another opportunity is improved follow-up on cases in the judicial system. During his time on the bench Judge Burke has noticed that when record clearance petitioners appear before judges in his county, it is often the first and last time the judge will see them. Judge Burke believes that more can be done to keep track of the success stories that come from people with expunged records, which would show policymakers and the judiciary the importance of expanded record clearance and the need for further dialogue.

Drawing from decades of firsthand experience, Judge Burke said he always reminds his students at the University of Minnesota that “all of us are capable of making some pretty serious mistakes in our lives, and most of us . . . were lucky enough not to get caught.”

For those who did, however, he emphasized that the judicial system could play a larger role in minimizing the potentially outsized damage these mistakes and the criminal records attached to them can have on people.

But for now, he looked to the future. Recognizing that many people, not just judges, need to play a role, Judge Burke emphasized that record clearance is “a big, nationwide problem that requires a nationwide commitment to [give people] a second chance.”

Seeking New Perspective, Interview Series Gives Firsthand Look at Criminal Record Clearance Experiences

By Carla Sinclair, CSG Justice Center staff

With awareness of the need for criminal justice reform on the rise across the country, hearing stories about people who have criminal records isn’t all that uncommon. But a new interview series is allowing listeners to actually hear how these records have impacted lives as well as the discourse surrounding criminal record clearance.

For the Record is produced by the Clean Slate Clearinghouse, a project funded by the U.S. Departments of Labor and Justice that provides resources that help individuals with criminal records learn more about removing, or “clearing,” those records from easy public access. The series features conversations between Rashawn Davis—a policy analyst at The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center—and people who are involved in the criminal record clearance field, including elected officials, lawyers, social workers, and people who have or have had a juvenile or criminal record (or individuals who are all four, or more).

Davis and his guests will highlight the underexplored experiences, perspectives, and policy advances that are shaping the field and impacting the futures of people who have juvenile or criminal records.

“By exploring the narratives around the people who work, advocate, and benefit from record clearance, we bring color to a subject that is too often seen in black and white,” Davis explained. “The show helps to bring voices into the dialogue that aren’t often heard. This hopefully helps to expand the discussion around record clearance and can act as a model for other areas of criminal justice, which plays into the Clean Slate Clearinghouse’s goal to be a nexus for criminal record clearance resources.”

The inaugural episode was released on March 6, 2018, and features an interview with criminal justice reform advocate Khalil Cumberbatch, an associate vice president with the Fortune Society and someone who has an intimate knowledge of the series’ subject: he spent almost seven years in prison, and four years after that with a criminal record until he received a gubernatorial pardon in 2014.

Opening the conversation about record clearance in this way “has the ability to tell a larger narrative, which in this case, is largely about humanizing someone,” Cumberbatch said, noting the power of framing the conversation around people, not convictions, when it comes to talking about individuals who have juvenile or criminal records.

“It doesn’t mean that it’s a win, and everyone can pack up and go home,” he said. “But it is a way to shift culture.”

Listen to the first episode here, and stay tuned for information on the next episode of For the Record.

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