Access to criminal records is a controversial topic on many accounts. Criminal background checks for employment are often important safeguards to protecting vulnerable members of our communities, such as minors and the elderly. It can also help ensure that sensitive information does not fall into the wrong hands. For example, a job where employees have access to bank accounts or social security numbers may not be the best position for a person convicted of identity theft crimes. Yet, the flip side of this argument is that access to criminal records can also create an unfair stigma, especially for first time offenders. Not everyone convicted of a crime is a hardened criminal with no remorse.
As such, most states have laws which provide for expungement of criminal records. When a criminal records is expunged, this usually means everything associated with the criminal records is “destroyed” or no longer available to be viewed. This includes apprehension, arrest, detention, and trial information. So, if an employer performs a criminal background check on someone who committed a crime, but that record was expunged, the search result would be as if there was never a crime committed.
Expungement standards vary according to state. Rhode Island, which already has a reputation for liberal expungement standards, recently had a new expungement law approved by the House Judiciary Committee.
Rhode Island’s current laws allow criminal records to be expunged for first time non-violent offenders five years after the sentence is complete for misdemeanors, or 10 years after completing a felony sentence. The new proposed law, however, would expand the expungement option to deferred sentences. The proposed law reads:
This act would require the records of deferred sentences, dismissals…, or a not guilty finding by a judge or jury after trial, to be automatically quashed and destroyed, if upon completion of the five (5) year period after acceptance of the deferred sentence, no action has been taken on the case. Further, all records relating to the case would be expunged…
With a deferred judgment, the defendant must enter a plea of guilty and then generally has a period of probation where they are subject to certain conditions, such as not being convicted of another crime. If the person successfully completes the probation period, at the end of the time period the guilty plea is considered withdrawn and no judgment of conviction or sentence is entered. Under the new proposed law, after the 5 year probation period, all information related to this criminal record would be “quashed and destroyed.”
While some Rhode Island law makers feel this new law would help lift the barrier of a criminal record which keeps many from getting a good job. Yet others feel that including deferred sentences into the expungement law is a dangerous step because guilty plea was originally entered.
What are your thoughts on this new bill? Is it fair, should other states follow in Rhode Island’s footsteps?
To learn more about criminal records and other public records, visit the Rhode Island Free Public Records Directory.