Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Legal Aid Celebrates National Expungement Week: Part Two

It is National Expungement Week. In honor of this week, Legal Aid wants to celebrate the power that criminal record sealing has to expand economic opportunities for DC residents. Criminal records place obstacles in the way of DC residents who are searching for work and homes. Fortunately, DC’s criminal record sealing laws are an invaluable tool to allow some individuals with criminal records to move forward with their lives. In the future, Legal Aid encourages the DC Council to continue to look for ways to responsibly expand access to criminal record sealing.

The Problem: Criminal Records Interfere With DC Residents’ Search for Jobs, Homes, and Economic Security

A single arrest, even one that never leads to a conviction, can throw up lifelong obstacles to employment and housing. That is why DC’s criminal record sealing laws are life-changing for many DC residents.

As a white paper put out by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council explains, criminal-justice involvement can range from an arrest to a conviction to incarceration. According to the CJCC, during the last ten years, over 100,000 individuals have been arrested while living in DC. A large swath of DC residents live their lives under the shadow of criminal records. Many of them were never even convicted of a crime.

Once a DC resident has a record of criminal-justice involvement, this record can place obstacles in the way of getting a job and a home. A 2014 study, funded by the Department of Justice, asked employers to rate the likelihood that they would hire job candidates who presented a number of different potential hiring “deficits,” including contacts with the criminal justice system as well as non-criminal justice related deficits. The non-criminal justice related deficits included unemployment for the past six months or longer and having only short-term or part-time work experience. That study found that having any lifetime arrest reduced a person’s hiring prospects more than any of the non-criminal justice factors.

Criminal records can also make accessing housing difficult, or even impossible for some individuals. Criminal records can cause DC residents to lose, or be denied, subsidized housing like public housing or housing choice vouchers. Some landlords rely on criminal records to evict a tenant or to deny an application for an apartment. Although the Fair Criminal Record Screening for Housing Act of 2016 aims to prevent discrimination against individuals with criminal records in their search for housing, this discrimination unfortunately persists.

Because the criminal justice system disproportionally impacts people of color, criminal records deepen racial disparities. According to a report published by the Center for American Progress in 2015, nationally, black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. Latino men are two-and-a-half times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. People of color are more likely than their white counterparts to interact with the criminal justice system, more likely to end up with criminal records, and more likely to suffer the lifelong employment, housing, and other consequences of these criminal records.

The effects of criminal records swell throughout communities. The 2015 CAP report estimated that between 33 million and 36.5 million children in the United States have at least one parent with a criminal record. This number represents about half of the children in the country. When parents face obstacles to getting jobs and housing, their children also suffer from this lack of economic security. Widespread criminal records dampen the hopes of whole families and communities.

Part of the Solution: Access to Criminal Record Sealing

Fixing DC’s criminal justice system is a complex and tangled problem. Fortunately, DC’s criminal record sealing laws are a piece of the solution. Record sealing increases economic opportunities for some people who could otherwise be mired in the stigma of a criminal record for the rest of their lives.

The Criminal Record Sealing Act of 2006 made criminal record sealing available to many DC residents. These residents need to file motions in DC Superior Court and wait for a judge to decide whether to grant their motions. If a motion is granted, then the Court will order the police department and the applicable prosecutor’s office to seal the records of that criminal charge. In addition, the Court itself will seal its records of the charge. Individuals with DC criminal records can file motions to seal their criminal records for a number of reasons. For example, a person can bring such a motion if she claims that she is actually innocent of the crime with which she was charged. Or, she might file such a motion is if she was charged with an eligible misdemeanor, she has waited for a period required by law, and she does not have any disqualifying arrests or convictions.

Research into the success of DC’s criminal record sealing laws is still limited. However, in March 2019, the University of Michigan’s Law and Economics Research Paper Series published an analysis of the impact of Michigan’s record sealing laws. This paper found that criminal record sealing increased employment and wages. Within a year after receiving expungement of criminal records, according to this analysis, an individual’s chances of being employed increased by a factor of 1.13. Further, within the same time-period, an individual’s reported quarterly wages increased by a factor of 1.23. Criminal record sealing expands the economic horizons of individuals who would otherwise be tethered to their criminal records. What is more, these expanded economic opportunities mean that the children and families of individuals with criminal records also have more economic security as well.

Unfortunately, although invaluable, DC’s criminal record sealing laws can be difficult to navigate without a lawyer. What is more, many people remain ineligible because they have to pass through a lengthy waiting period or because they have an arrest or conviction that makes them ineligible for sealing. Legal Aid encourages DC Council to continue to consider ways to expand access to the powerful tool of record sealing.

Criminal record sealing cannot and will not solve the myriad problems that have arisen from decades of a hyperactive and racist criminal justice system. However, it can strengthen families and communities by giving DC residents with criminal records a chance to move forward with their lives.

If you or someone you know needs legal assistance related to a reentry issue, contact Legal Aid at (202) 628-1161 or visit our intake sites during walk-in hours.

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