Bill would allow more people to get criminal records sealed

DOVER — In 2009, Corie Priest pleaded guilty to selling marijuana and was sentenced to two years in jail.

When he got out, he thought his life would return to the way it was before.

He was wrong — very wrong.

“In retrospect, I didn’t understand my plea,” Mr. Priest recalled Wednesday. “I didn’t understand that after doing my time, I wouldn’t be able to get that job at the law firm. I wouldn’t be able to get that job at the hospital.

“I would have to present my life story in front of a board so I can become a barber. I cannot get the opportunity to become a taxicab driver.”

He was one of more than 60 people who crowded into one of Legislative Hall’s many rooms Wednesday to hear about and speak on a bill that would greatly expand adult expungements.

An expungement seals a criminal record, meaning a potential employer or virtually anyone else would not know about the crime.

Members of the Senate Judicial Committee spent more than an hour listening to advocates, members of law enforcement and ex-offenders, with most of the speakers in favor of the legislation. Although the bill did not get out of committee Wednesday, it is expected to do so in the near future after lawmakers convene a meeting with law enforcement and others.

Currently, an adult can only seek an expungement in two circumstances: if his or her arrest did not lead to a conviction or guilty plea and if he or she first obtained a pardon for a misdemeanor offense.

Under Senate Bill 37, an adult could also obtain an expungement from the courts for a low-level violation if at least three years have passed since the conviction or for some misdemeanors if at least five years have passed. Such expungements would be mandatory, meaning the State Bureau of Identification would be required to seal an individual’s record if he or she applies and meets the criteria.

Mandatory expungements would not be available to individuals found guilty of bribery, abuse of power, perjury, tampering with a court case, domestic violence or offenses involving a child or vulnerable adult.

Someone unable to obtain a mandatory expungement might still be able to seek a discretionary one. To be eligible for a discretionary expungement, an applicant must be at least three years removed from the date of conviction or release (whichever is later) for most misdemeanors, seven years removed for a misdemeanor involving one of the aforementioned offenses for which a mandatory expungement cannot be sought or seven years removed for a felony conviction.

The Department of Justice would be able to recommend the courts accept or deny a discretionary expungement request, taking into account the entire case, including charges that may have been dropped.

Anyone who has pending criminal charges, is currently serving a sentence, has convictions for multiple cases, has received an expungement within the past 10 years or was found guilty of traffic offenses would be ineligible to have his or her records sealed.

Someone with a conviction for unlawful sexual contact in the third degree, abuse of an impaired adult, abuse of a patient in a care facility, a violent felony or a felony involving physical or sexual assault could not receive an expungement without first obtaining a pardon from the governor.

While the bill notes all fines, fees and restitution stemming from a conviction would have to be paid first, it gives the judiciary the power to waive that requirement in some circumstances.

According to a study released earlier this month by two professors at the University of Michigan Law School, individuals who obtain an expungement are much less likely to reoffend and are more successful in finding work.

Lisa Minutola, chief of legal services for the Office of Defense Services

“Individuals who had an expungement did not have a higher rate of recidivism,” Lisa Minutola, chief of legal services for the Delaware Office of Defense Services, told the committee. “It was about the same of the average population in Michigan and the rates they looked at were about 6 percent for rearrest after five years. Only 2 percent of that was for a violent offense, and then for conviction it was about 4 percent.

“So those are very, very low rates, and I think part of that is because an individual who has the motivation to keep their record clean and meet the eligibility requirements in a time period to actually apply for and obtain an expungement and actually goes through that whole process, which can be time-consuming and expensive, is then motivated to remain free and clear so they can do the things that they wanted to do, such as go to college or get a good job or get stable housing.”

But other speakers raised concerns about how an expanded expungement process would impact public safety, especially victims of crimes, while State Bureau of Identification Director Benjamin Parsons said the measure would pose obstacles for the bureau.

Between 80,000 and 97,000 people would be eligible under the bill, greatly increasing the workload for the agency and likely creating a massive backlog in the process, Capt. Parsons told the committee.

“This is going to add a tremendous burden to them to get this done,” Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, said, while noting he strongly supports the concept.

The bill would cost the state about $623,000 more in the next fiscal year and $1.03 million every year thereafter, according to an estimate attached to the legislation.

Main sponsor Sen. Darius Brown, D-Wilmington, said he has an amendment for the bill that would prevent individuals convicted of several of the most serious crimes, such as rape of a child, from getting an expungement. It has not been filed yet.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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