State News

Two years after a veto, lawmakers angle again for expungement system reform

 

By Norah White, Community News Service

Editor’s note: The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

Lawmakers are trying again to pass a bill to replace the state’s expungement system with a more expansive process of sealing records — after Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a similar effort almost two years ago.

Vermont currently has a dual-track system for people looking to clear up their criminal histories: for certain offenses and with certain caveats, people can have their criminal records sealed or expunged. The new bill, H.655, would switch the process almost entirely over to sealing, with certain rare exceptions, while expanding the list of crimes that qualify for clearance. In exchange for increasing the number of crimes that can be cleared, lawmakers are shifting to sealing as a compromise.

Expungement entirely wipes someone’s conviction from the official record — the goal being for equal treatment and opportunities as those not convicted. Sealing a record is meant to have the same effect; however, the record is still maintained and accessible to courts and law enforcement, among others.

Criminal history records refer to “all information documenting an individual’s contact with the criminal justice system,” said Michele Childs, legislative counsel, in a Feb. 20 House judiciary committee meeting.

The bill proposes three main objectives. The first objective is to outline all the qualifying offenses for sealing. The list includes most misdemeanors, with exceptions such as child exploitation, neglect and violation of abuse prevention orders. The bill also details a few extraneous felonies related to offenses such as burglary, drug possession and counterfeiting. The bill greatly expands what offenses qualify for clearance. 

The goal of expanding the list of crimes is to make it so more formerly incarcerated people have an easier time obtaining employment or housing, explained Rep. Karen Dolan, D-Essex Junction, a sponsor of the bill.

The bill provides the process for sealing records while erasing the previous procedure for expunging records. 

A person convicted of a crime may petition the court with a request for sealing, if their offense is no longer illegal or if it qualifies for sealing. A county state’s attorney or the state attorney general will respond to the petition and file an agreement with the court, and then the court will issue a notice of sealing. 

“The current process is really open-ended. This moves everything to sealing to help make it more consistent,” Dolan said. 

The last part of the bill explains who can access sealed records: the attorney general, a person or a court that issued the sealing order, the Vermont Crime Information Center and the Criminal Justice Information Services Division of the FBI.

Supporters of the bill recognize that no longer allowing expungement may be a loss for some convicts. Some people who would have previously been allowed expungement will now only be allowed sealing, Dolan said.

But to get the bill to pass, legislators directly referenced and modified a similar bill vetoed by Scott in 2022. Some objectors were worried that allowing expungement would be harmful in certain scenarios.

First, said Dolan, critics were opposed to expungement outright. So legislators looked at sealing instead. But opponents of the vetoed bill wanted records to be accessible in more situations.

“Before [in the 2022 bill], some crimes were going to be expunged, or they were going to be sealed, but record checks could not be done,” said Dolan, pointing to firearms purchases as an example. “In this bill, we are addressing and fixing both of those issues,” she said.

Victims of crimes also preferred sealing to expungement so that if someone re-offended, law enforcement would be able to look for patterns in their criminal histories, Dolan said.

By moving the entire process to sealing, more parties are likely to support the bill and increase its chances of passage. Even though their criminal histories wouldn’t entirely disappear, people convicted of crimes would still see benefits in the realms of employment and housing. 

“We were able to expand the list of crimes because more folks were on board with this,” Dolan said. “That helped expand who could have access to record clearance … there seems to be more of an appetite for sealing [at] the state’s attorney’s level because the record is not completely gone.”

Still, some people harbor worries that sealing is too lenient. 

Chris D’Elia, president and treasurer of Vermont Bankers’ Association, is worried that sealing of some of the crimes listed in the bill will hamper employers in his industry who want to hire trustworthy people.

“Us as institutions, when you’re looking at the HR process, the hiring process, you want to be able to understand … if somebody was involved in credit card fraud,” D’Elia said in a Feb. 27 meeting of the House judiciary committee.

Credit card fraud is a felony that qualifies for sealing under the bill. D’Elia worries the inclusion of crimes like that will negatively impact the decision-making process for employers like him. 

But supporters of the bill say Vermont needs to move toward a more merciful criminal justice system that gives people who’ve served their time more viable second chances in the workforce, while allowing certain people to see someone’s criminal history when necessary. 

“We are trying to balance public safety with the welfare of folks who have been convicted,” Dolan said.

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