Minn. officials debate when to clear crime slates

  • Article by: BRIAN BAKST
  • Associated Press
  • February 17, 2014 - 3:05 PM

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota's willingness to forgive people with criminal pasts is emerging as a hot topic for state legislators, who previewed a proposal Monday that would give low-level offenders a clean slate more quickly and for a more clearly defined set of offenses.

But a special House-Senate working group, which released its draft legislation, didn't reach consensus on which crimes should be eligible in a revised expungement process and whether the underlying records would truly get wiped away. Expungement orders are designed to seal records from arrests, prosecutions and convictions for people who demonstrate years of changed behavior after completing punishment.

The discussion is driven in part by two Minnesota Supreme Court rulings last spring that narrowed the judicial branch's ability in those petitions to classify all records associated with a crime. And it is also spurred on by arguments that long-ago infractions shouldn't impair employment and housing searches for years to come.

Andrea Palumbo, a private attorney who has represented people seeking expungements, told the panel that the bill offers hope to people seeking to start fresh on an equal footing.

"In so many instances, my clients look far worse on paper than they actually are," she said.

The bipartisan working group didn't vote, but it made clear that the full Legislature would be confronting the issue in the annual session that starts next week.

The draft plan could allow for court petitions to expunge misdemeanor convictions if violators stay clean in the three years after they complete any sentence. For a limited list of felonies, the waiting period is at least five years after the punishment has been satisfied. Records services that businesses use to screen job applicants or possible tenants would have to delete data when criminal records are expunged, under threat of civil penalty if they don't.

One dividing line is whether the reworked process should pertain to misdemeanors only or also include some felonies.

Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said he thinks felonies will have to be excluded from the list to gain GOP support.

"I don't see it being reasonable and palatable at this point in time" to include them, Osmek said. "I see too many openings."

As constructed, the bill would rule out felonies deemed crimes of violence and apply to only those in the lowest two classification categories. But some theft, fraud or drug crimes would be open to expungement.

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said petitions would still be run through the court system, as they are now, so it shouldn't be viewed as a free pass for anyone to easily clear their records.

"The title of the offenses can give us all heartburn," Liebling said.

Another sticking point is how government agencies and licensing boards can carry out background check duties when some records are sealed. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is restricted in how it can share details related to expungement orders — in some cases, even the fact an order exists.

Jerry Kerber, inspector general at the Department of Human Services, said the agency is concerned about being hamstrung when vetting license applicants for care facilities that house vulnerable populations.

"Even a misdemeanor theft is concerning in one setting where it isn't in another," he said.

Top lawmakers on the panel promised to address the information-sharing concern prior to votes during session.

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