BOSTON — A new law making it easier for people to seal their criminal records has prompted a surge of requests, overwhelming state officials.
Last year, Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation overhauling criminal justice laws that, among other changes, shortened the waiting period for individuals found guilty of misdemeanor offenses to ask that a case be sealed from five years to three, and from 10 years to seven for felony convictions.
The new law also allows for the sealing of juvenile criminal records and expanded the list of offenses that qualify for sealing.
Those changes have prompted a surge in requests, which Baker administration officials tout as evidence of the law’s effectiveness.
Since October, when the changes went into effect, the Office of the Commissioner of Probation has received 4,283 petitions from individuals to seal adult and juvenile criminal records — averaging more than 500 requests a month — and another 1,737 court orders to seal records, according to data obtained through a public records request.
Likewise the number of charges being sealed has skyrocketed. More than 42,000 individual charges have been sealed in the past six months, or about 7,000 a month, the data show.
By comparison, the probation office sealed a total of 8,400 offenses last year.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of petitions but even more so the number of charges requested to be sealed,” said Sean Casey, who oversees the office’s criminal records division.
Despite the increased workload, Casey said the office is processing petitions within two weeks of receiving the requests.
The state’s Probation Service department, which fields the requests, doesn’t keep tabs on which offenses are involved in sealed cases. Major convictions — such as murder, felony assault, drunken driving, domestic battery rape, and other sexual offenses — cannot be sealed.
Massachusetts is known for being particularly unforgiving when it comes to allowing people to get out from under the shadow of a conviction. Criminal records can haunt people long past their punishments, criminal justice advocates say, preventing them from getting jobs or housing, or from getting into college.
The overhaul approved by the Legislature and Baker last year was meant to help people get on with their lives by making it easier to wipe prior records clean.
The new law also allows juvenile records and some adult crimes to be permanently removed from a person’s criminal record through a process known as expungement. Unlike sealing a criminal record, which can still be viewed by law enforcement, expungement permanently erases charges from someone’s official record.
But, records show, more than 80% of petitions for expungement submitted as of May were rejected, according to state data.
The probation office has received 260 expungement requests since January, but only 32 were ultimately accepted, and some of those were approved through the court system.
Advocates for criminal defendants say the expungement law is of limited use because people with juvenile records can only get one charge wiped clean. The advocates say there are still too many charges that don’t qualify.
Lawmakers have made several attempts to amend the expungement law, but it remains unclear if those bills will be taken up by legislative leaders.
Pauline Quirion, a lawyer and director of the criminal records sealing project at Greater Boston Legal Services, says the large number of rejections show the law’s shortcomings.
“This is more evidence the expungement provisions for juveniles and offenses that occurred before age 21 need overhauling,” she said. “The success rate is abysmal.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.