September 26, 2015

Baltimore Sun: New state laws to help Marylanders clear arrest records

Tavon Wheeler believes his arrest history is holding him back.

Over the years, the 31-year-old Baltimore man has been charged with violations such as disorderly conduct and having an open container of alcohol.In each instance, court records show, the charges were dropped or postponed indefinitely, or he received probation before judgment. But they have remained on the public record, where prospective employers can find them online.

So when he found out he could have many of the charges expunged — removed from public view — it gave him motivation to press forward.

“This is a blessing,” he said.

Under new state laws that take effect Thursday, many more Marylanders will be able to clear minor charges from their records — and, officials say, fare better in the employment market.

The legislation, approved this year by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and signed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, is part of a national reassessment of the tough-on-crime, mass-arrest mentality of the 1990s and 2000s, in light of the far-reaching consequences it has had on many communities.

Studies show that minorities, who are more likely to be arrested, have been affected disproportionately.

“It’s obvious that interaction with law enforcement is not just a criminal justice issue, it’s an employment issue,” said Caryn Aslan, senior policy advocate at the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore. “A large segment of our working population is effectively unemployable as a result of a prior blemish.”

Legislatures across the country are passing “ban the box” measures to limit the ability of employers to ask job applicants about their criminal records, reconsidering restrictions on applicants for food stamps and other benefits, and allowing the expungement of some charges to make it easier for those with criminal backgrounds to get a fresh start.

The Maryland laws will expand the number and types of charges that can be expunged and for the first time give people the ability to hide certain misdemeanor convictions.

The number of expungements has grown steadily in Maryland over the past decade, from 15,800 in 2004 to about 33,800 in 2014, according to legislative analysts.

There is no official estimate of how many people will be eligible to cleanse their records under the new laws, but advocates expect a substantial number. About 73,000 criminal cases were dropped in district courts in Maryland last year, but they still left a mark that could be viewed by the public.

Advances in technology have given employers and landlords easy access to such information. Even if a person is not convicted, records of interaction with law enforcement can hurt a job search.

“People who aren’t attorneys may not necessarily know what all those things mean,” said Lonni Summers, a staff attorney with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.

Under one new law, people may seek the expungement of convictions for offenses that are no longer a crime, such as possession of small amounts of marijuana, which was decriminalized last year.

People will also be able to shield convictions for certain misdemeanors, including disorderly conduct, prostitution and trespassing, from public view. Police and certain licensing boards will still be able to access the information.

Another new law repeals the so-called subsequent conviction rule. People may have eligible charges expunged even if they are later convicted of another crime.

“It’s almost a no-brainer; if you’re not convicted of something, you should be able to have it expunged,” said Del. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill.

Critics of the new laws say employers need as much information as possible about an arrest history when deciding who to hire.

“It’s too late when somebody steals $5,000 or $10,000 from you,” said Del. John Cluster, a Baltimore County Republican.

Cluster, a retired county police sergeant, said the shielding law went too far by allowing people to shield multiple offenses.

“It goes to character, whether you can trust that person,” Cluster said. “My concern is that people are going to be trusting people [and] they really don’t know their full background.”

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposed the changes.

“Fundamentally, we do not agree that government should tell businesses how to run their business,” said Deriece Pate Bennett, a lobbyist for the chamber. She said businesses should be able to gather as much information about prospective employees as possible for liability and safety reasons.

The Maryland Multi-Housing Association opposed an initial version of the shielding measure because it would have allowed people to hide misdemeanor theft convictions from view, according to association lobbyist Tommy Tompsett.

Once theft was removed from the legislation, the association supported the bill.

“The misdemeanors that are in there shouldn’t necessarily be an impediment to housing or employment,” he said.

A growing number of states are helping people make fresh starts. In a report last year, the Vera Institute of Justice said at least 31 had passed measures since 2009 to expand expungement or seal more records. The New York-based group, which studies and proposes solutions to problems in the criminal justice system, says more states have passed such measures since then.

Policymakers have “connected the dots,” said Ram Subramanian, an author of the report. “If they are going to reduce the recidivism rate” — the rate at which ex-convicts reoffend and return to prison — “they should not prevent people from getting housing, getting an education, getting employment.”

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby has supported second chances for nonviolent offenders, hosting events such as a community day in July at which people could learn how to bounce back from a criminal conviction.

Professor Michael Pinard, co-director of the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland’s law school, said bipartisan support is growing for the idea of being “smart on crime,” not just tough on crime.

“Many people with many ideological differences agree that we are spending an exorbitant amount of money on our criminal justice system and we get very little in return,” Pinard said.

A criminal record can be a significant barrier to employment, Pinard said, especially for minority job applicants. “Sometimes the real punishment takes place after the person exits the criminal justice system,” he said.

Wheeler was working as a parking garage attendant years ago when the company discovered he had an arrest record. He said management placed him on probationary status.

“For almost a year, I worked with no benefits,” Wheeler said.

The legal and nonprofit communities are planning outreach events to teach people about the new laws. An all-day expungement and shielding clinic is scheduled for 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday at New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore. Participants will receive an overview of state policies and get help filling out court forms.

People lined a sidewalk outside the New Shiloh Baptist Church’s Family Life Center in Baltimore one morning last week waiting to attend an “expungement fair” hosted by Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake.

Participants heard from attorneys and met with employers who were willing to hire people with criminal histories.

“You need to develop a narrative and it’s got to be your narrative, not what society says or somebody else says,” attorney Eric Broyles told the crowd.

Baltimore Sun reporters Catherine Rentz and Christina Jedra contributed to this article.

Originally published on the Baltimore Sun, available online here.