OUR OPINION: Expungements too costly, burdensome

Missouri's burdensome process for expunging a criminal record is unfair and unduly affects those without bargaining power.

An easier process should exist for those who have made a mistake and have paid their debt to society.

Under Missouri's expungement law, people who have committed certain crimes have the opportunity to get those offenses sealed. When the court seals or expunges a criminal record, it is no longer publicly accessible and requires a court order to reopen.

The majority of nonviolent felony offenses in Missouri are eligible for relief, according to The Restoration of Rights Project (RRP), a comparative analysis of state laws and practices from a coalition of national criminal justice organizations. But only about 1 percent of those eligible for an expungement have taken advantage of it.

Failure to take advantage of an expungement can cost the convicted person; the aggregate annual earnings loss associated with clearable convictions is $2.6 billion.

Why don't more seek to have their records sealed?

Missouri's burdensome petition process required for an expungement is to blame, experts say.

Here's what that burdensome process might look like:

Under Missouri law, a conviction for passing a bad check can be expunged or the records sealed. But many find the process of expunging that offense too expensive, intricate and strenuous.

The current process of getting an expungement involves submitting a petition in the county court where the individual was charged. The process is time consuming, costly and confusing for people.

The average cost of petitioning for expungement is $500, according to Empower Missouri, a citizen advocacy group. This number accounts for fines and fees, but most people will also have to pay to retain an attorney for the duration of the process. So the expense can be prohibitive, especially those who work in low-paying jobs.

But there is a payoff if a person is able to get that criminal record sealed.

Having a criminal record can lock a person into a cycle of low-wage work with scant opportunities for advancement, negotiation or transitioning to higher paying jobs. It can also limit access to occupational licensing, housing, public benefits and other opportunities.

On average, the wages of people who receive expungements can increase by more than 20 percent just one year after the record has been cleared. And five years after expungement, individuals who received an expungement were less likely than members of the general public to be convicted of a crime, according to data from Empower Missouri.

Empower Missouri, Missouri NAACP and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice are spearheading a statewide initiative to pass Clean Slate legislation in Missouri in 2023 that would create an automated expungement process.

The legislation they're looking at would propose an increase in the cap on the number of offense records a person could seal. The current cap for felonies is one; the cap for misdemeanors is two. They hope to raise the cap to three felonies and five misdemeanors.

"We are imagining a future where expungement is more accessible to those half-million Missourians who qualify, so the law in practice has the impact it was intended to have," said Gwen Smith, criminal justice policy manager for Empower Missouri.

While we might quibble on the number of offenses that could be sealed with new expungement caps, we agree reform is needed.

The General Assembly should aggressively look at how expungements should be handled going forward. The intent of the reform would not be to give the convicted person a free pass. These are folks who have done their time or paid their fines. They should be given a better opportunity to build a more productive life for themselves and their families.

-- News Tribune

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