BOSTON — A new law allows people to wipe clean their criminal histories, but only a handful of requests to do so have been approved, according to a review of state data.
The law, part of a criminal justice bill signed last year by Gov. Charlie Baker, allows juvenile records and some adult crimes to be permanently removed from a person’s criminal record. But records from the Office of the Commissioner of Probation, which administers the law, show only a handful of petitions have been approved.
The probation office has received 173 expungement requests since January, but only a dozen were ultimately accepted, according to agency data obtained through a public records request.
Advocates say the large number of rejections illustrates the shortcomings of the law, which was touted by Beacon Hill leaders as the largest overhaul of the criminal justice system in decades.
“Clearly the juvenile expungement law has been a failure,” said Leon Smith, executive director of the Boston-based group Citizens for Juvenile Justice. “This is impacting people's ability to move on and live productive lives. We need to fix it.”
In April, the most recent month for which data were available, the probation office received 62 petitions for expungement of juvenile records but rejected 56. Of the 18 requests it deemed eligible and forwarded to district attorneys for consideration, only two were ultimately approved by the courts, the data show.
Courts have approved another 22 direct requests for expungement so far this year, in which people asked judges to erase their criminal records. The probation office didn’t say how many requests directly submitted to courts were rejected.
The law allows for an individual’s criminal record to be wiped clean provided that the offense occurred before their 21st birthday and they’ve stayed out of trouble for a period of time.
For a felony charge, petitioners must wait at least seven years until after their sentence was completed to request expungement. For a misdemeanor, the wait is three years.
Major convictions — such as murder, felony assault, drunken driving, domestic battery, rape and other sexual offenses — cannot be expunged.
Advocates speculate that many of the petitions were rejected because the individuals had multiple charges as part of one conviction, or the charges were among 150 that aren’t allowed to be expunged. In many marijuana possession cases, for example, some defendants have been charged with intent to distribute if the drug was packaged in bags or rolled into joints.
Smith said juvenile records can haunt people long past their punishments, preventing them from landing jobs, renting apartments or getting into college.
He said studies show young adults who’ve been arrested or charged with crimes, and who stay out of trouble for four or more years, are less likely to get into trouble again.
“A lot of young people may go through a rough stage as a teenager, but then they move on,” he said. “So why are we still punishing them as adults for childhood mistakes?”
Smith's group is among those pressing lawmakers to revisit the law to allow multiple charges to be wiped clean, and to widen the list of offenses it covers. Lawmakers have filed several bills to update the law, but it remains unclear if they’ll be taken up by legislative leaders.
One proposal, filed by Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, and Rep. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, and backed by about 50 lawmakers, would allow individuals with more than one charge on their juvenile record to qualify for expungement, and would allow for the sealing of all juvenile records except for those related to murder or sex offenses.
Another proposal would require any records be automatically sealed, once the waiting period has expired, and would clear previous convictions for marijuana possession before it was legalized.
Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, one of 50 cosponsors of Creem and Decker’s bill, worked in construction and recalls stories of young men who couldn’t get hired because of something on their record from years ago.
“They did something stupid when they were 19, it stays on their record, and they can’t get hired,” he said. “These people want to get their lives back on track, and we’re preventing them from doing that.”
'We need to update this law'
The expungement law was part of an overhaul of the criminal justice system that raised the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 12 years old and decriminalized minor offenses for juveniles. The law also changed how bail, fines and fees are levied, and it raised the threshold at which theft is considered a felony.
A major provision of the law allows juvenile records and those for some crimes committed as adults to be erased.
It created two categories under which individuals could seek an expungement: One allows a person with only one charge on their record, committed before they turned 21, to be permanently destroyed. The other allows people with adult and juvenile records to request expungement through the courts for multiple offenses if they are no longer illegal — such as marijuana possession — or for cases that resulted from misidentification, identity fraud or mistakes by law enforcement, court staff or witnesses.
Unlike sealing a criminal record, which can still be viewed by law enforcement, expungement permanently erases charges from someone’s official criminal record.
But advocates say the law is of limited use because people with juvenile records can only get one charge wiped clean.
Pauline Quirion, a lawyer and director of the criminal records sealing project at Greater Boston Legal Services, said that makes the “whole statute unworkable.”
“We need to update this law to make it more usable,” she said.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.