DC Takes Steps Toward Addressing Criminal Records

Chatter around criminal justice reform opportunities continues loudly following the successful bipartisan federal First Step Act. States and localities alike are taking hard looks at ways to build common sense policies that further reform efforts around the country. It’s a rare area where bipartisanship exists.

An aspect of this issue that affects every American, regardless of his or her degree of involvement in or separation from the criminal justice system, is what happens to offenders after they serve out their sentence and return to society. Any rational citizen should want offenders to successfully reenter society. Yet, few truly know the difficulties that face offenders upon reentry, no matter how faithfully they may have rehabilitated themselves.

The effects of a criminal record follow individuals for the rest of their lives after incarceration, or even simply after an arrest that doesn’t result in a conviction. Unfortunately, the effects are not positive. They present an overwhelming burden for individuals to move on from a mistake they may have made in the past, making it difficult to secure housing, pursue educational opportunities, and maintain or even find stable employment.

The bottom line is that we must ensure that their efforts to rehabilitate themselves are not in vain. Thankfully, many local politicians are leading the way.

About six months prior to the passage of the federal First Step Act, Pennsylvania led the way in passing and enacting the Clean Slate Act, which streamlined its state record-sealing process, largely making it automatic while also creating certain new opportunities for expungement following a set time crime-free post-incarceration. This bill was overwhelmingly bipartisan. It passed the Republican-held House and Senate 188-2 and 49-0 respectively, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed it into law.

Our nation’s capital took note. In January, Washington, D.C. Council Member David Grosso introduced the Record Sealing Modernization Amendment Act, which takes a similar approach Pennsylvania’s legislation and aims to overhaul the way D.C. “handles records of arrests, charges, and convictions in D.C. to support reintegrating people with such records into the community.”

By establishing a process for expunging records, qualifying certain records for this process, and allowing for some automatic sealing or expunging of records, such reforms would remove unnecessary and harmful barriers for many of those who have been in or brushed up against the justice system in one way or another.

In discussing his bill, Grosso said, “It is my hope that the Record Sealing Modernization Amendment Act of 2019 can help fulfill the promise to returning citizens — or even people who are arrested and nothing ever comes of it — that we support them and will not judge them forever for past mistakes.”

Those who care about public safety, redemption, and government accountability should be able to unite behind common sense proposals to confront the lingering problem presented by criminal records head-on.

The Record Sealing Modernization Amendment Act and legislation like it across the country should serve as an example for all. As members of Congress look ahead at further opportunities to better our criminal justice system, they should make certain to look in their own backyards, not only to their home states, but also to the city that lies outside the walls of the Capitol.