Former prisoners joined with advocates of criminal justice reform Thursday to back three D.C. Council bills that would make it easier for people arrested by police to shield their court records from the public.
The proposed legislation would automatically seal some court records of people who have been arrested but were never charged or convicted of a crime. It also would allow people to shield public records of many misdemeanor and some felony convictions to make it easier for them to obtain jobs, housing and loans.
Kevin Petty testified at a hearing of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety in the John A. Wilson Building that a felony conviction in 1978, for which he served prison time, continues to impair his ability to find employment.
He asked council members for what he called "an authentic second chance" and said there is no reason for his decades-old record to be publicly available today. "Why should this continue to hang around my neck?" he said, noting he is a productive resident of the District.
The bills enjoy widespread support on the council, particularly by the committee chairman, Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), and David Grosso (I-At Large). Allen said there are about 68,000 people with criminal records in the District, 35,000 of whom have arrest records but were either never prosecuted or never convicted of a crime.
Alfreda McKinley submitted testimony saying she was convicted of a misdemeanor in 2005, and the new law would for the first time allow that crime to be sealed. She said she has experience in accounting and procurement but has been unable to find meaningful employment "because of my record." Sealing her prior conviction, McKinley said, "would allow me to obtain stable, higher-paying employment. . . . I served my sentence, and now I believe I deserve a second chance."
Opposition came from journalism groups, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, open government advocates, an attorney for The Washington Post and representatives from companies that collect and distribute data.
Robert S. Becker, representing the D.C. Open Government Coalition, read off a litany of newspaper stories that used court records to highlight racial disparities and other problems in the criminal justice system, some of which he said were identical to "what the council is trying to fix."
Becker noted a bill moving through the council, sponsored by Allen, to overhaul the Youth Rehabilitation Act, which provided leniency to young offenders, some of whom went on to commit violent crimes. The legislation came after a Washington Post investigation that examined thousands of court records, which Becker testified "would not be published" had records targeted by the bills been sealed.
James McLaughlin, The Post's deputy general counsel, said that even information on arrests that don't lead to criminal charges are critical to reporting, such as examining whether police engage in unlawful arrest practices. The legislation, if enacted, would instantly seal 100,000 court records in the District and seal an additional 40,000 records each year.
"It would in effect create a black hole in which massive portions of the Superior Court docket in any given year would vanish without public trace," McLaughlin said. "Over time, it would erode one of the most important checks on the justice system."
He urged the council to find another remedy rather than trying solve "societal problems by cutting off the flow of information to the public."