Should Criminal Records Be Temporary?

Jul 10, 2018

With recreational marijuana now legal in Vermont some people arrested for having pot are getting those crimes removed from their records.

But marijuana misdemeanors aren’t the only crimes people can get expunged. In fact, many crimes are eligible, and some attorneys say the process should be easier, or even automatic.

For people with criminal records who stayed out of trouble, their past can follow them after they’ve completed their sentence.

Today, Karissa is a med tech and pursing her dream job of being a nurse.

“I never thought that I would ever be able to do what I've always wanted to do for a career which was nursing,” Karissa says.

But for more than a decade, that dream job seemed out of reach. When Karissa was 18, she came home from partying and her mom called the police on her. When the cops were bringing her in, Karissa, who was blacked out, says she kicked one of the officers.

She got charged with simple assault on a police officer.

Karissa was addicted opiates and after her simple assault charge, things got worse.

“I would shoplift to support my addiction and I was also homeless for a period of time. So I would shoplift to support my basic needs of food,” she says.

VPR is only using Karissa’s first name because she’s concerned that her past criminal history could hurt her career.

For three years, Karissa kept having run ins with the police - mostly for retail theft. But things changed when she was 21. She got on Suboxone and made it into a treatment program.

Eventually, she went to community college and did really well.  However, she says, her criminal record made it hard to get decent jobs or pursue a career.

Karissa caught some breaks when a teacher at an LNA program put her in touch with Vermont Legal Aid.

"When a person comes up positive and has a criminal record regardless really of what it is, we see that people are being denied from basic opportunities." — Mairead O'Reilly, Vermont Legal Aid

The organization helped Karissa successfully petition to seal most of her record.

“You just feel so much lighter knowing that you don't have to keep paying for something that you did when you were a dumb kid or a bad place in your life,” she says.

This would have been difficult without Mairead O’Reilly, an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, who helped Karissa.

O’Reilly says having a criminal record can make it hard for people to get out of poverty. 

“When a person comes up positive and has a criminal record, regardless really of what it is, we see that people are being denied from basic opportunities,” she says -- like jobs. 

Vermont law lets people expunge or seal their record under specific circumstance. Here are the basics:

First, the conviction has to be on the list of qualifying crimes - that’s most misdemeanors and a few felonies.

Next, a person has to wait a set amount of time - usually five years - after completing the terms of their conviction. Then, they file a petition with the court. There’s a $90 dollar fee to do that.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George says it’s not a difficult process, but it can be intimidating.

She thinks a lot of people don’t even realize they could get convictions taken off their record.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George says lot of people might not realize their criminal records are eligible for sealing and expungement. She’s in favor of making the process automatic in most cases.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR

“That's something that's always frustrated me as I don't think you should have to hire an attorney just to get something that you're legally entitled to because you don't understand the process,” she says.

So George says in most cases she’d like to see convictions removed by default when a person is eligible.

“Other than those really extreme cases I think it should automatically happen when you are legally entitled,” she says.

State’s Attorneys could still object to an expungement.

George isn’t the only states attorney in favor of the idea automatic expungements. Windsor County State's Attorney David Cahill also supports the idea.

But changes to the expungement law would have to come from the legislature.

Sen. Dick Sears, chair of senate judiciary committee, doesn’t support automatic expungements.

“People actually care enough to get their records cleaned up and expunged, then they should take the initiative to go to the state's attorney or to a county office,” he says.

Still, Sears says he is in favor of making the process simpler. And the legislature has taken incremental steps in that direction.

This year, the legislature passed a law that automates the sealing and expungement of records when there is no conviction.

"People actually care enough to get their records cleaned up and expunged and then they should take the initiative to go to the state's attorney or to a county office." — Sen. Dick Sears

It also created a study group that will look at the expanding the list of crimes that can be expunged and the feasibility of automatic expungements. The group is supposed to present their findings to a joint Justice Oversight committee by November.

For now though, most people still need to submit a petition.

Karissa, who successfully sealed most of her record, is optimistic about the future. She got a promotion at work and now that she’s making more money, she and her boyfriend might buy a house. And she’s planning to finally go to nursing school.