October 15, 2015

Expungement on the Horizon?

United States District Judge Raymond J. Dearie, a former prosecutor who has never been mistaken for a liberal jurist, has publicly called on the federal criminal justice system to find a way to allow for the expungement of criminal convictions for persons convicted of certain crimes. It is an important idea that is worthy of discussion, both for the benefit of those convicted and society as a whole.

As the NYLJ reported today, Judge Dearie recently issued a decision in Stephenson v. United States, 10 MC 712 (RJD), in which he addressed a request for expungement from Dawn Stephenson, who Judge Dearie had sentenced in 1993 to one day of imprisonment, several months of home confinement, and four years of supervised release following her plea to bank fraud. The government opposed the petition, arguing that the circumstances were not sufficiently extreme to warrant the relief.

Unfortunately for Ms. Stephenson, the court agreed that the current law compelled the denial of the petition, although it left the door open for renewal down the road. This was undoubtedly a tough call for Judge Dearie, as he made clear:
This notion of forgiveness underlies the promise we so extend to individuals making their way through our criminal justice system: if you 'pay your debt to society' -- whether through a sentence or a fine -- you are afforded a second chance in life. Lately, this has been a promise left largely unfulfilled. Criminal records are remarkably public and permanent, and their effects are pernicious. A criminal sentence too often becomes “a lifetime of unemployment.”  It is time for a change. . . .As a judiciary, it may be time to revisit the standard for granting expungement and consider, based on what we know now, whether expungement should be limited to only the most “exceptional” cases.
This is obviously correct. A person convicted of a crime serves his sentence, and often suffers all sort of concomitant penalties, such as the loss of familial relationships, employment opportunities, and so forth. These are the sorts of consequences that follow criminal convictions, and ought to provide a disincentive for criminal conduct. But once that sentence is served and the fines are paid, the offender should have an opportunity to restart his life. Not simply out of basic fairness, but also because it is in our best interest.  There are myriad of reasons why society benefits when our former convicts become gainfully employed, including reduced incarceration costs, lowered crime rates, and healthier and stronger families and local communities.

Redemption and rehabilitation may be an anathema to the law, order, and continuous retribution crowd, but people who screw up and pay the price deserve the opportunity to reclaim their lives. Not necessarily for all offenders, but for those in certain categories, this is surely a fair suggestion.