Editor’s note: This commentary is by Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan.
As Vermont and our nation continue to work toward a more fair and equitable criminal justice system, the Vermont Legislature is considering an important bill that can provide a fresh start for thousands of Vermonters, promote public safety, and reduce incarceration. S.7 expands Vermonters’ ability to expunge old criminal records. Clearing old criminal records for Vermonters who have served their penalty and remained trouble-free for years is pro-jobs, pro-opportunity, pro-fairness, and plain common sense. With the passage of this one bill, we can provide thousands of Vermonters with economic opportunity that has been long denied because of the “scarlet letter” of an old record that, often times, has no bearing on our public safety but carries tremendous, long-term unintended consequences for the individual. I’ve always believed the best form of public safety is a good job. One way to make Vermont more affordable is to give Vermonters the opportunity to achieve their dreams by unleashing their entrepreneurial spirit and trusting them to make their own decisions about their future.
S.7 will greatly increase access to sealing and expungement — the legal terms for clearing old criminal records — for those who have remained out of trouble for at least five years after the completion of their sentence. For more serious offenses the waiting period is longer, and the most serious offenses will not be eligible for expungement at all. Judges make the final decision on whether to grant an expungement or sealing.
Greater access to expungements and sealing will increase economic opportunity for low-income Vermonters and effectively increase Vermont’s workforce. A criminal record is often a barrier to employment or an obstacle to getting a better-paying job. Studies show that people who obtain expungements see their wages increase and are more easily able to find employment.
This bill also protects the public. Studies show that providing people with access to steadier- and higher-paying work will lower the risk of re-offense and criminal behavior. In addition, data shows that for people who successfully receive an expungement, their risk of re-arrest is below that of the general population.
The notion that old records help to accurately assess risk and ensure public safety is simply not backed by the data. After years with no further offenses, a person’s risk of committing a new crime drops to that of the average person in the general population. Moreover, contact with the criminal justice system has had a disparate impact on people of color and the poor in our state. S.7 is a small step towards leveling the playing field by providing a clean slate for so many of our neighbors.
Access to expungements and sealing is also a matter of basic fairness. No judge or prosecutor ever intends to take away economic opportunity long after a sentence has been served – but that’s exactly what records do. A criminal record can have a devastating impact on economic prospects for the rest of a person’s life. It impacts their ability to engage in their community, to secure stable housing, accompany their children on a school trip, coach their kids in a youth sports league, and jeopardizes their access higher education.
I extend my gratitude to leaders in the Legislature, notably Sen. Richard Sears and Rep. Maxine Grad, for their leadership on this critical issue. I am also grateful to the many advocates in Vermont who have advanced the cause of fairness and opportunity through the expansion of expungements. S.7 is in the legislative process and still being refined to address any stakeholder concerns.
Passage of this law will increase job opportunities, fortify public safety, and prevent further marginalization of Vermonters, often the poor and people of color, in the name of public safety. I urge the Legislature to pass S.7, and I urge the Governor to sign it into law.
Studies and citations referenced in this article can be found here.