BOSTON — Less than 20% of the people who have applied to have young adult offenses erased from their criminal records under a 2018 law have had their requests granted, according to advocates who are pushing for an expansion of the expungement policy.
The criminal justice overhaul that Gov. Charlie Baker signed in April 2018 included language making certain crimes committed by offenders up to age 21 eligible for expungement. Two years later, with racial justice and policing language on the move on Beacon Hill, supporters see an opportunity for further action.
"As the law was interpreted and implemented, we quickly learned that it was very restricted," Geoff Foster, director of organizing at the Lowell-based youth organization UTEC, said. "You were only eligible if you had just one charge on your record prior to the age of 21, and there was also a list of over 150 charges that are automatically disqualified."
Sections of the sweeping police reform legislation (S 2820) the state Senate passed last week address expungement of young offender records.
Foster said the Senate bill would expand the expungement law "basically to accommodate for the reality of recidivism" by allowing the consideration of multiple charges for expungement.
The Senate's proposal would not change the list of charges that are ineligible for expungement, Foster said, but it would make young people who were either found not guilty of such a charge or had the case dismissed eligible for expungement.
"It's really to make sure that if you're innocent in the eyes of the court, you shouldn't have the same collateral consequences in terms of jobs or educational opportunities," he said.
The House on Monday advanced a new version of the policing bill, which is teed up for a debate on Wednesday. The House's version of the bill (H 4680) does not include expungement language, but it could be proposed as an amendment. Representatives have until 1 p.m. Tuesday to file amendments.
Last week, when the House Ways and Means Committee was collecting testimony on the Senate bill, more than 90 organizations -- including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, the Boston Foundation, the Massachusetts Public Health Association, the racial justice committee of the AFL-CIO, March for Our Lives Boston, Stop Handgun Violence and the Massachusetts Bar Association -- sent in a letter urging representatives to agree to the expungement law expansion.
The letter said less than 19 percent of applicants have been approved for expungement since the 2018 law was implemented, and "none of the young people who advocated for the law benefit because of its restrictions."
The groups described expungement as "an important tool to rectify the documented systemic racism at every point of the criminal legal system."
"The unfortunate reality is that people of color are far more likely to be subjected to stop and frisk and more likely to get arrested for the same crimes committed by whites. Black youth are three times more likely to get arrested than their white peers and Black residents are six times more likely to go to jail in Massachusetts," they wrote. "Other systems where people of color experience racism are exacerbated, and in many ways legitimized, by the presence of a criminal record. Criminal records are meant to be a tool for public safety but they're more often used as a tool to hold communities of color back from their full economic potential."
Separate from the policing legislation, Reps. Marjorie Decker and Kay Khan filed a bill, at the start of the session in January 2019, that looks to expand the expungement law. Forty-five other House lawmakers signed onto that bill (H 1386) as co-sponsors, which the Judiciary Committee included in an order for further study.