As the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes our economy, we also are re-examining the role of policing in our society. Convictions related to pandemic tickets and convictions before the pandemic have a devastating effect on our community members’ livelihood and require a solution.
Many people with convictions on their records had difficulty finding stable employment before COVID-19. With unprecedented unemployment rates and business closures, people with conviction records face now face nearly impossible odds of finding work.
In addition to conviction records’ effect on employment, the stigma of conviction affects a person’s ability to qualify for private and public housing, volunteering with certain organizations, obtaining student financial aid, and prevents access to various social services.
Nationally, COVID-19 exposed the need for automated expungement when legal relief clinics and non-automated court proceedings shut down. Expungement assistance is often the first opportunity a person has to clear their record because it can be a burdensome process. In-person clinics are not safe now, which results in fewer people receiving the help they need to clear their records legally. This roadblock could be avoided if our government automated relief.
To address the impacts of convictions on our people and economy, Hawaii should automate the process of post-conviction relief and rights restoration. The result of automatic expungement: people would more easily access employment, and we would cease the continued punishment of people for their past. Government leadership also would serve our convicted community members by ensuring that stigma does not win over anti-discrimination laws meant to protect them.
Automation in Hawaii would allow for qualifying records to easily be expunged. At the moment, there is a fee and paperwork required, and people with records often need the assistance of an attorney. The result is a burdensome process for all involved and an unfair and likely unforeseen limitation on the statutorily granted rights of a person convicted of a crime in our state.
There is precedent in other jurisdictions for this type of relief. Studies have shown that post-conviction relief provides an immediate economic boost to individuals and the community — which is needed now more than ever. States like Pennsylvania and Utah have adopted clean-slate policies that automate record clearance for those who remain crime-free for a period of time.
Expungement automation should also be retroactive to be most effective. In 2018, Pennsylvania passed its Clean Slate Act, which automatically sealed eligible criminal records. While this relief was capped at the misdemeanor level, making it limited in reach, the law was impactfully retroactive. By making the expungement or sealing retroactive, more than 32 million non-conviction and misdemeanor records held by the Pennsylvania courts and state police will be closed off to the public by the end of this year.
States like Pennsylvania prove that it is possible to make our anti-discrimination laws have more of an impact in Hawaii. Yes, it will take more work on the part of our elected and state officials, but our economy needs it now more than ever, and our community members deserve the full protection of our anti-discrimination laws when they are simply trying to find work.
Here in Hawaii, we have hundreds of thousands of people who could directly benefit from those policies. We have the tools to provide this relief at a minimum of risk and effort. Do we have the will? Our future depends on it.
Note: This is National Expungement Week, Sept. 19-26.