A welcome move to ease the burden of a criminal record

NC lawmakers are moving to make it easier to clear nonviolent criminal records.
NC lawmakers are moving to make it easier to clear nonviolent criminal records. Observer file photo

In the General Assembly, Democrats and Republicans have reached rare consensus that many people who have had nonviolent brushes with the law shouldn’t be burdened by that record their entire lives. Significantly, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger has committed to providing that relief, and his influence showed in the Senate’s unanimous passage last week of The Second Chance Act.

The bill, now pending in the House, would automatically expunge the records of people who have had charges dismissed or were found not guilty. It also allows the expungement of youthful convictions and expands the eligibility for the expungement of adult convictions.

The bill also calls for a study of the cost and implications of automatically expunging records of misdemeanors and minor felonies, if a person has met the terms of his or her conviction and has not had a subsequent conviction. Utah and Pennsylvania recently approved automatic expungement of some records. It would be a major step forward in North Carolina. Since 2011, North Carolina law has allowed for the expungement of some first-time convictions, but few people are aware of the option.

The Second Chance Act is one of several bills aimed at helping people burdened by a criminal record. House Bill 121 provides relief for those people convicted as an adult when they were 16 and 17 years old. It has passed the House. The Freedom to Work bill — House Bill 770 — has passed the House. It would require occupational licensing boards to use a standard that a criminal record be related to the occupation being sought before denying someone an occupational license.

The push to clear records of relatively minor and long ago charges and convictions comes in response to an excess of criminal charges arising from the war on drugs and general over-enforcement, particularly with regard to people of color. Nearly one in three Americans — 100 million — has a record of a brush with the law. Many of those records reflect a misdemeanor or an arrest that never led to a conviction. Those blots can have an outsized impact when they affect a person’s ability to be licensed or certified, to qualify for housing or simply to be considered acceptable by an employer.

The impact of criminal records on hiring is one reason why there is bipartisan support for expanding access to expungement. Sen. Danny Britt Jr., a Republican sponsor of the Second Chance Act, described it as a jobs bill. In a tight labor market, employers need more qualified applicants. Expunging records of misdemeanors and dismissals would make more people eligible for better jobs.

The legislation to expand the clearance of some criminal records in North Carolina comes with significant safeguards. Convictions for violent and sexual offenses are not eligible, and prosecutors would have access to an expunged records if a person is charged again. To protect auto insurers, motor vehicle convictions would not be eligible for expungement.

As a practical matter, the effect of expungement is countered by the permanence of information in the age of Google. Even those who clear their records can face questions about arrests or convictions found through a media search. That is an issue for future legislation regarding the fairness and accuracy of information generated by search engines.

Nonetheless, the push to lift a burden that should ease with time, and compliance is a welcome one that lawmakers of all stripes can support. People make mistakes — or are mistakenly charged — and those errors, within reason, should be atoned for and, in an official sense, forgotten.