Joshua Esmay knew he faced long odds when he approached the podium at the Minnesota Supreme Court last week.
Esmay is an advocate for people trying to overcome tangles with the criminal justice system. Last Tuesday, he faced the seven robed justices in an attempt to stop the court's plan to put thousands of Minnesota criminal records online.
He talked about the "stigma" of a past conviction and raised the specter of data miners using the records to wreck people's chances of getting a job or an apartment. "The real point is, we don't know how it will be used," he said.
Esmay's reasoning goes against just about everything this column stands for. The fact that we can't predict how the public will use more government information is an argument for granting access.
Within months, the state Supreme Court could move forward with its plan to put the bulk of trial court records online. This long-overdue change will allow people to view lawsuits, criminal complaints and other records over the Internet. Currently, you have to go to a Minnesota courthouse to see these documents, and often have to pay $10 or more per document to get a printout.
While online access to some sensitive records will likely be restricted, the proposal to make post-conviction criminal records available was relatively uncontroversial. The 23-member committee that drew up the records plan had only one dissenter.
Nevertheless, Esmay, the director of public policy and advocacy for the nonprofit Council on Crime and Justice, felt he had to take a stand. I paid a visit last week to the council's downtown Minneapolis office to get a better understanding of why.
Esmay said that every month, 40 people show up at the group's "expungement seminar" to learn how they can erase evidence of past arrests and convictions. He said these people are overwhelmingly minor offenders, but each suffers "collateral consequences" of that past, when prospective employers and landlords find out about them.
Wider circulation of criminal complaints, which often contain unproven allegations and painful details, will compound the damage, he said.
"The vast majority of people make mistakes," he said. "We don't need to know constantly about them."
Esmay admits there's collateral damage to keeping records under wraps, as well. To protect itself, the public needs to get a full picture of crimes, and those who commit them. Access to criminal records is also essential to knowing how police and prosecutors go about their jobs, thereby holding them accountable.
The council's perspective has gained traction at the Legislature, which recently prohibited employers from requiring disclosure of criminal convictions on initial job applications (the so-called "ban the box" law) as well as broadened judges' power to expunge juvenile delinquency records.
Still, it's doubtful in this age that people can truly erase their pasts as they try to control their futures.
In his remarks before the court, Esmay brought up the websites that feature mug shots as an example of misuse of criminal records. Some of those websites offer to take down a mug shot for a fee. It sounds like blackmail, which is already a crime. The answer is punishing the perps, not restricting the public's ability to view mug shots.
After Tuesday's hearing, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea said the high court will issue its order on access "in due course." The court should stay on the course of openness.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at email@example.com or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.