State lawmakers are lining up for the right reasons to support a bill that goes the wrong way about trying to solve the problem of giving people a second chance after criminal convictions and allegations.
Impetus from House Bill 1214 comes from Aurora Democratic State Rep. Mike Weissman, who illustrated a serious problem in Colorado. People who in the past have run afoul of the law pay a virtual life sentence for petty crimes and even no crimes at all.
Shoplifting allegations, bar fights and other similar infractions remain permanently affixed to people, often causing them lost job opportunities and more for the rest of their lives. Weissman, and a growing number of state lawmakers, want the state criminal justice system to automatically shield an ocean of criminal records from the public in a well-meaning effort to give people an opportunity to move beyond their mistakes and not be dragged down for the rest of their lives.
“This bill is about second chances,” Weissman told fellow legislators at the bill’s introduction, according to The Denver Post. “1.8 million people in our state have some kind of criminal record. That’s over a third of all adults. I think we should find that pretty striking.”
It is striking, and the stunning number warrants serious analysis and media inquiry. But if Weissman’s bill passes, this worrisome problem can’t be easily scrutinized to understand it and possibly change it.
The measure would automatically seal most arrest records that did not result in convictions. On its surface this makes sense. In the eyes of the law, a person arrested but never convicted is innocent. In the real world, that’s not always the case. Automatically sealing arrest records, and even conviction records for some crimes, makes numerous assumptions that could enable future crimes and crime victims.
We staunchly agree that people who move beyond their criminal mistakes, or never even really committed one, should not be unfairly punished. Aurora lawmakers, led by Councilperson Curtis Gardner, are making “second chances” a priority for the city.
But this proposal doesn’t do what it should. It doesn’t prevent employers or others from asking the questions that trigger lost jobs or housing: “Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?”
Removing a record doesn’t remove the facts, which are often found numerous places outside of court records.
Most importantly, as the media continues to shine a light on problems in police agencies, sheriff departments and court districts, these sealed records hobble the press and government agencies from scrutinizing who’s arrested, why and whether there are nefarious reasons for the number and target of arrests, or the lack of convictions.
No one benefits from reducing transparency in law enforcement and justice systems at a time when so many are fighting so hard to increase it.
Instead, change the law to allow individual cases to be satisfied by judgment and redacted upon request. Ban employers and landlords from asking anything other than, “have you ever been convicted of a crime not satisfied by the courts?”
Even more importantly, state lawmakers should press harder on criminal justice reform that ensures people who are mentally ill or suffering from addictions not be criminalized for what are clearly not criminal issues. State lawmakers need to help find ways to divert the state’s youth from the criminal justice system, rather than simply deliver children and adolescents directly to the courts.
Even better than providing a second chance would be preventing a first conviction.
The intent is admirable and the mission critical, because too many Coloradans suffer unfairly for infractions, even after paying their “debt” to society.
But HB 1214 would do too little to prevent employers and landlords from exploiting past mistakes, and create dangerous barriers for the press, the government and the public to hold police, courts and prosecutors accountable.
Weissman is a thoughtful and thorough legislator, giving us pause on pushing back against a way that could help people wrongfully hobbled by a criminal justice system deserving intense scrutiny and reform. While some criticisms may be exaggerated, we’re confident HB 1214 ineffectively addresses the symptoms and not the problem.