The “convicted felon” label sticks on a person like a cattle brand. A black mark in job interviews and on college applications. Perhaps the most formidable obstacle standing between life in the system and life on the straight path. The record is a reminder that while you can change past ways and atone for past misdeeds, you cannot erase society’s memory of that past life.
As Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman put it this week: “The stigma of a criminal record continues long after a sentence has been served.”
Lippman, the top judge on the state’s highest court, thinks that this memory should not always be permanent. And in his State of the Judiciary speech on Tuesday, he announced that he was drafting a bill that would allow judges to erase non-violent felony convictions from a person’s record after ten years of no arrests. Judges would also be able to expunge misdemeanor convictions if the person goes seven years without an arrest.
The record cleansing would not apply to sex offense, political corruption, and drunk driving convictions.
Lippman made a particular effort to address the way convictions for minor crimes can disproportionately damage a person’s future. In his speech, he said that starting in April he will seal misdemeanor records, which sometimes keep people from finding jobs.
“There is no doubt that criminal conduct should have consequences,” Lippman said, “but individual, often isolated, mistakes that result in criminal convictions for low-level, non-violent offenses should not permanently hinder a person’s ability to become a productive, law-abiding member of society, particularly when he or she has gone years without being re-arrested.”
Lippman said that he is sending a draft bill to the state legislature.
Lippman’s speech promoted a wide-range of progressive reforms to the state’s criminal justice system. He called for a law requiring prosecutors to turn over key witness statements to defense attorneys earlier. And he stated that the state needed an improved witness safety protocol so that defendants would not be as disadvantaged by the amount of redacted information during the discovery period of the trial.
The chief judge also announced a new initiative to allow law students to take the bar exam early if they spent their final semester doing pro bono work for the poor. Lippman has long critiqued the lack of legal resources for low-income people. Through the pro bono idea, called “Pro Bono Scholars Program,” he hopes to decrease “the justice gap.”
“We can lay a cornerstone for the future of legal education,” he said.
Send story tips to the author, Albert Samaha