Justice reform group hails expanded expungement rules in Maryland
Although a civil rights advocacy group is praising the passage of a Maryland bill that will allow criminals to expunge certain felony offenses, questions remain about the law's implications.
In signing Senate Bill 101 on April 24, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan celebrated the new law for its tougher sentencing rules for repeat violent offenders and for establishing stricter penalties for gun crimes. Buried in the bill's fine print, however, is language that adds certain felonies to the list of crimes offenders are already allowed to expunge under Maryland’s existing rules.
Maryland's previous expungement law allowed misdemeanor charges to be redacted if the defendant wasn't found guilty, according to a Baltimore Sun editorial. The Second Chance Act of 2015 added 13 misdemeanor charges to be hidden, even if there was a guilty verdict.
The Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform (MA4JR) says such laws allow citizens with a criminal past to more easily re-enter the workforce.
“The law seeks to give former felons a second chance in life when they have served their sentences and any probation, as well as going 15 years without any new offenses,” the MA4JR's executive committee said in a statement released to the Maryland State Wire. “Such policies, in recent years, have earned bipartisan support on both the state and federal level.”
Without expungement laws, such as the one in Maryland, “a huge percentage of the U.S. population may show as having a ‘criminal history’ – and, therefore, (face) employment obstacles even if they have demonstrated rehabilitation and no new offenses for an extended period of time,” the MA4JR committee said in the statement.
Questions remain, however, about whether the ability to hide portions of an individual’s criminal record actually make communities safer. In what appears to be a similar case, for example, the shooter at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was able to obtain a gun used to kill 17 students there earlier this year, despite his past brushes with law enforcement at the school.
Under guidelines issued by the Obama administration, school officials refused to have the shooter arrested, hence his lack of a police record when he went to buy a gun.
“The upshot was that the lack of an arrest record made it difficult for police to confirm that Cruz was a proven threat and to intervene when they received call-in tips and complaints from neighbors, classmates and relatives about his stockpiling of weapons and desire to kill people," Paul Sperry, writing in RealClearInvestigations.com, said.
Could more potential offenders slip through the cracks as the result of increasing the kinds of offenses that can be expunged under Maryland law?
The MA4JR doesn’t think so.
“The Parkland shooter never was arrested, much less convicted, due to short-comings in the law enforcement process, so expungement laws have no connection to that situation,” the group said in a statement. “What the Parkland shooter’s situation does illustrate is the lack of adequate response in Florida (and elsewhere in the U.S.) to individuals with mental disorders, especially those with access to military-grade weapons.”
The MA4JR committee noted that the legislature began evaluating tougher mental-health screening requirements in 2018 for people who have been arrested.
“More study will be required before this can be put in place,” the committee said.
In the meantime, the MA4JR said it will continue to advocate for the rights of those who have criminal records, pointing out that a decades-old conviction may not be relevant to current employers.
“Some ‘criminal record’ information, however, isn’t reliable – for example, charges that were dismissed due to insufficient evidence,” the MA4JR committee said in its statement. “At some point, when a person has demonstrated their good conduct for many, many years, even an old conviction – able to be expunged – may no longer be a reliable reason to deny employment.”