From fair-housing advocates to felons, dozens of people lined up Tuesday to tell lawmakers that laws designed to give reformed offenders a second chance are failing and should be overhauled.
“If you or someone you know has a criminal record, please raise your hand,” Justin Terrell, a program manager for Justice 4 All, asked the crowded room at a legislative hearing Tuesday on state expungement laws designed to give deserving lower-level offenders a clean slate. Nearly every hand shot up, including those of some lawmakers on both sides.
Among the witnesses were Emily Souther, a 30-year-old mother from Spicer who can’t complete her nursing studies because of her juvenile record, and James Cannon, a counselor who said he found work only because an assault conviction stemming from a fight in college was successfully sealed.
The emerging theme: Despite their best efforts, offenders find it difficult to move on unless their records are sealed.
State law allows judges to wipe out, or expunge, the criminal records of certain offenders. But a state Supreme Court decision earlier this year ruled that judges can expunge only court records, not those collected by state agencies such as the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension or Department of Human Services.
As a result, offenses are still showing up in certain background checks, leaving applicants with few options when it comes to jobs or housing.
Rep. John Lesch, D-St. Paul, has drafted a bill that would give judges the power to seal all records related to an expungement. The bill, which he calls a “conversation starter,” is expected to be the first of several proposed solutions that will emerge before the Legislature convenes in February.
Rep. Debra Hilstrom, D-Brooklyn Center, who co-chairs the legislative group reviewing the issue, said she expects progress.
“I’m confident that we’re going to get something done this session,” she said.
Renee Zschokke, an employment counselor for ex-offenders, said her clients are ordered by probation officers to find work and housing, but once background checks reveal their records, rejection after rejection ensues.
“This is where the roller coaster ride begins. A motivated client can quickly fall into a state of hopelessness,” said Zschokke. Expungements that truly wipe the slate clean, she said, provide “a glimmer of hope.”
Expungement laws aren’t the lone issue, said Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville.
“The problem is that our background check process in the state of Minnesota is really just a big mess,” Holberg said. “Many times it’s not clear what issues would negate somebody’s ability to hold a license, certificate or a job ... You really can’t un-ring bells anymore with the data that’s out there.”