H.534, become law this session.
The legislation would change the way people could clear criminal records and expand the number of offenses that would be eligible for that process.
Like other people interviewed for this story, VTDigger agreed to identify the woman only by her initials — in her case, L.W. — to protect her from having the 2007 conviction she hopes to someday erase continue to follow her.
The bill covers all misdemeanor convictions, with exceptions for violent crimes, such as sexual exploitation of a child and domestic violence offenses.
Certain felony offenses are also covered under the legislation, including property and financial crimes, as well as lower-level selling, dispensing or transporting regulated drug offenses.
The proposal focuses on creating a “one-track” system to clear a criminal record by sealing and nixes the expungement process except in rare instances, such as municipal violations.
Currently, expungement of a charge makes it disappear, while sealing allows access to those records for certain specific reasons. The bill aims to make sealing more like expungement by narrowing those reasons and the duration of time in which access would be permitted.
Under the legislation, a record wouldn’t be permitted to be sealed until a person has finished their sentence, plus an additional three years for most misdemeanors and seven years for felonies.
L.W. said that while there are pathways that would allow her to work in the nursing field, the reality is those avenues would still leave a felony conviction on her record that would serve as a major roadblock.
“The whole thing is, no place is going to hire you, just because I have a drug felony and I’d be around narcotic medicine,” L.W. said. “I kind of understand, but I’m not that person anymore.”
L.W. is hardly alone.
While an exact number of people who could benefit from the legislation is unclear, it is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
Another potential beneficiary of the bill, M.T., said she was 23 years old and living in Bennington when she picked up her felony conviction for possessing stolen property.
Now, M.T. is 58 and lives just across the Vermont border in New York state.
“I wanted to work for the state, I wanted to become a social worker for kids,” she said. But M.T. said she was told by a professor in a college course that she would never be hired as a social worker with a felony conviction.
As a result, M.T. said, she stopped taking classes and abandoned her dream.
She works as a paraeducator at a Vermont school. M.T. said the only reason she believes she is still in that position is because the principal “went to bat” for her.
M.T. said she was afraid to leave that job because she might not find someone else to take a chance on her.
“It’s a total embarrassment,” she said of her felony record.
Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said she sponsored the legislation to allow people to remove old convictions for certain crimes from their record, which otherwise can prevent them from obtaining a better job, housing and access to educational opportunities.
“I think it’s an important workforce development issue,” Grad said. “It removes a major barrier for people.”
She pointed to testimony the committee heard on the bill from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law and JPMorgan Chase.
Witnesses from both the criminal justice reform
think tank and the financial titan testified that allowing people to clear an old conviction promotes justice as well as economic development by adding to a labor pool in need of more workers.
The House Judiciary Committee has approved the legislation, and it is now before the House Appropriations Committee for consideration.
Grad said Friday she expected the legislation would clear the House and advance to the Senate.
It has strong backing from criminal justice reform advocates who have offered voices of support.
“This bill is important,” Vermont Legal Aid attorney Mairead O’Reilly said, “because it provides greater access to record clearance for folks who have served their sentence and paid their debt to society and really need and deserve to be reintegrated into our community.”
Expanding opportunities for people to clear criminal records strengthens the state’s workforce at a time when workers are in high demand, according to O’Reilly.
“We are in such a dire place in terms of being able to find folks to fill really important positions in our economy and I think this is an untapped resource,” she said.
Heather Newcomb, women’s program manager with Vermont Works for Women, works out of the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, the state’s only prison for women. She helps incarcerated people there transition back into the community and find employment.
Newcomb said the legislation was a potential “game changer” in expanding career opportunities.
“This really levels the playing field for everybody to have an equal shot at rebuilding their lives after being incarcerated or coming in contact with the justice system,” Newcomb said.
Sarah George, Chittenden County’s state’s attorney, who is known for backing progressive justice reforms, is also in favor of the legislation.
“With no legal employment options, criminal activity begins to look like a viable option,” the prosecutor said in written testimony to the House committee.
“Now, more than ever, I think H. 534 could improve public safety in my community by making record clearance more accessible to more Vermonters who need economic opportunity,” she said.
The proposed legislation has not drawn universal support. Two of the top law enforcement officials in the state said that while they agree with many of the aims of the measure, they have issues with some of the provisions.
Mike Schirling, commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety, said criminal records are vital to ensuring an informed response when officers are called to an emergency.
“Being able to paint a clear picture, slowing encounters down, taking into account things you know about a particular location or person, is essential in creating the most safe encounter possible,” Schirling said.
“This would do the opposite of that,” he said, “strip away those records from policing use and law enforcement agencies and officers would be blind to certain interactions.”
Schirling said while he has talked in a “cursory” way about the legislation with Gov. Phil Scott, it was too early in the process to predict if a veto could be on the horizon should the bill reach the governor’s desk.
“The governor doesn’t make those decisions unless he sees the final product,” Schirling said. “He says the devil is in the details.”
bill S.7 at one point proposed greatly expanding the number of crimes eligible for expungement — not including the most serious offenses, such as murder and sexual assault.
The Scott administration raised concerns about the
breadth of the legislation, objecting to certain crimes that would become eligible for expungement.
Eventually, the bill signed into law by the governor called on the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee to “consider a comprehensive policy that provides an avenue for expungement or sealing of records for all or most offenses” except the most serious crimes, such as murder.
That process led to H.534 this session.
Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said the bill has exceptions that are overly broad for allowing sealed records to be opened. The legislation’s proposals to make sealing more like expungement do not go far enough, he said.
“I certainly prefer expungements because it’s better for the Vermonter,” the attorney general said.
He said some exceptions that would allow for access to the sealed records were concerning. For example, the bill would allow parties for sentencing in criminal cases involving certain crimes to access the sealed records for a number of years.
“You want to give Vermonters certainty,” he said. “I always preferred expungement. I’m certainly also willing to compromise.”
Grad, the bill’s sponsor, said restrictions placed on access to sealed records in the legislation are tight. “We really feel like we put in a lot of important protections and guardrails,” she said.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has scheduled testimony on the legislation in his committee next week.
“We definitely see it as a priority, giving people second chances,” he said. “The real issue is who gets access once you seal it. If you expunge something, it’s gone. If you seal something, it’s not. That’s where we’re going to be spending a lot of time.”
Sears said he wanted to make sealing as close to expungement as possible.
T.N., now 30 and living in Texas, has benefited from having the chance to seal his record.
He was 19 and living in southern Vermont when he was arrested and later convicted of felonies for his role in a burglary spree. After serving jail time, he said, he tried to move on with his life.
“I couldn’t get a job,” he said, adding that he eventually landed “crappy” employment in warehouse jobs. He said for years “labor jobs” was all anyone would hire him for, despite later graduating from college.
Eventually, T.N. said, he was able to get his record sealed — with assistance from Vermont Legal Aid — due to his young age at the time of the offenses. He said he is now working in the tech field as a recruiting coordinator.
He said he would like to see the process of clearing criminal records in Vermont expanded to help improve the lives of more people.
“I did it and it changed my life,” he said.
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