When people are convicted of breaking a law, they are sentenced to punishment. That can take many forms – time in prison or jail, on probation, or in community corrections (“halfway houses”). For lower-level offenses, punishment usually lasts a few years, or sometimes only a few months.
But at the click of a Google search, anyone can, at any time, dig up a lingering snapshot of someone’s past in the form of their record. This means people who have already served their sentence for lower-level offenses are too often condemned to suffer de-facto punishment for years or decades longer – unable to become part of society again, even though they have already paid in full for the wrong they committed.
This is unjust, particularly for people of color who have been over-represented in our criminal justice systems since their inception. Nearly half of young black males have been arrested by age 23, and even where charges are never filed, these arrest records persist, continuing the impact of disparate and discriminatory practices throughout the criminal legal system. Thus, young black males suffer barriers to future employment, professional certifications, and housing, at disparately higher rates.
It is also particularly unjust for those who have themselves been victimized. Some studies have found that 60% to 70% of women inmates suffered sexual assault prior to their incarceration.
A bill we are sponsoring this year with our colleagues Senators Pete Lee and James Coleman, House Bill 1214, seeks to rectify this injustice.
First, HB 1214 proposes to automate sealing of arrest records after at least a year where a charge is never filed. Presently, these records are already eligible to be sealed, but only through a cumbersome process requiring someone to go to court, pay fees, and possibly hire an attorney. By smart use of technology, we can make this process more efficient, available, and equitable.
Second, HB 1214 would automate the sealing of low-level drug offense records. These records, too, are already eligible for sealing, but again through a manual process that burdens both impacted individuals and our courts. Colorado’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice approved this approach with 86 percent support.
Third, HB 1214 would incrementally expand who is eligible to petition our courts to seal lower-level offense records. These sealing matters are not automatic, but instead involve measuring individual circumstances against criteria in the law, just like our courts do in other cases every day.
Finally, HB 1214 would strengthen the link between sealing and Colorado’s Victim Rights Act. Because sealing of conviction records is only available for lower-level offenses, many Victim Rights Act offenses are not eligible for sealing anyway, but for those that are, it’s only fair to allow victims of those offenses to be heard at sealing hearings. This is part of why two of Colorado’s largest victim-survivor advocacy organizations support HB 1214.
Research shows that people who are able to seal their record from broad public view have better employment opportunities and earnings. Sealing and successful employment also reduce the likelihood that someone will commit another offense, making our communities safer.
Some media organizations have objected to HB 1214 on the basis of access to information, particularly concerning law enforcement accountability. As representatives of Aurora, Denver, and Colorado Springs – communities that have seen their share of police-community conflicts – we take that concern most seriously too. HB 1214 does nothing to change other laws that make government information available to the public, such as the Colorado Open Records Act, the Criminal Justice Records Act, and Colorado’s landmark police accountability law SB20-217. And our law already provides a process for someone to go to court to seek to unseal sealed records if doing so is in the public interest, such as when someone is a candidate for public office.
Since statehood, people have come to Colorado to start new chapters or take on new challenges or adventures. Second chances are in our DNA. As we approach our 14th month of the COVID pandemic, we all have a heightened appreciation for the hope of another chance.
The opportunity for redemption and belief in second chances have roots in both our civic and religious traditions and should find expression in our criminal records laws, too. That is why a broad coalition of organizations from progressive groups like ACLU to conservative ones like Americans for Prosperity support HB 1214 and why we believe this bill is the right and just step forward for Colorado.
Mike Weissman is Colorado House Democrat representing District 36 in Arapahoe County. Jennifer Bacon is House Democrat representing District 7 in Denver.
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