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Punish once, not twice: the rationale for criminal record expungement

On Behalf of | Feb 25, 2021 | Sealing Criminal Records |

A bedrock principle of American criminal law underscores that an individual who has dutifully completed an imposed sentence for a charged crime merits a fresh start thereafter.

That stated expectation sometimes turns out to be an unrealized hope rather than a promise for select offenders. That is, it can spell fiction more than a reality for persons who continue to be punished in various ways following their completion of sentencing dictates.

Take employment, for example. Many former offenders face permanent reprisals every time they complete a job application. The same is often true when they seek to obtain a loan, secure housing, join the military, pursue educational opportunities or take advantage of other benefits broadly available to the general public.

The reason for their enduring misfortune is narrow and obvious: their criminal record follows them even after they have paid their debt to society. Hurdles continuously confront them, notwithstanding the ingrained principle that a fresh start awaits them after they have served their sentences.

Criminal record expungement: its fairness rationale is clear

Expungement is a process/result enabling applicants who secure its benefits to realize fair outcomes following criminal sentencing completion. A Colorado legal source discussing expungement sketches its essentials, noting that it “helps those who are eligible put an end to the punishment and start putting life together again with a clean slate.”

Many ex-offenders are understandably intimidated by expungement’s how-to process, seeing it as a bureaucratic hoop of complexity and challenge. A broadened program of automatic expungement relevant to enumerated nonviolent petty offenses would unquestionably avail many of those individuals.

In fact, such an initiative currently exists in draft form and is working its way through the Colorado Senate.

The expungement basics of Colorado Senate Bill 21-074

SB074 was filed just recently in Colorado’s senior legislative chamber. It centrally provides for this:

  • Automatic expungement (erasure) of certain nonviolent offenses
  • Process called for to determine list of convictions eligible for expungement
  • Individuals securing expungement for eligible misdemeanors three years following sentence completion, with a five-year wait period being applicable to eligible felony offenses

If enacted, the prospective law will greatly simplify the expungement process for many individuals.

Notably, though, it presently includes a lengthy list of offenses excluded from consideration. Those include convictions for prostitution, ID theft, domestic violence, traffic offenses and animal cruelty.

A legislator proponent of SB074 cites to a Harvard Law Review study concluding that the rearrest and reconviction rates for expungement recipients are dramatically low.