During the past 14 years he spent working in maintenance for the Maryland Transportation Authority, Harold Coleman, 54, has thought of seeking professional advancement.
But his options are limited, he explained to Maryland lawmakers this year, by a burglary charge he incurred while homeless on the streets of Baltimore.
Any hope of clearing his permanent record by expungement would have to wait until Oct. 4, 2024 — 15 years after he completed his entire sentence, including his parole. Had he lived in most other states, Coleman could have gone before a judge to ask years ago.
“I’ve excelled,” Coleman told the panel of lawmakers, which was weighing changes to those wait times. “I’m trying to move forward, set an example for the people that’s coming up behind me.”
They listened. And on Tuesday, Gov. Wes Moore (D) signed into law changes to bring Maryland’s conservative expungement rules in line with the state’s philosophical shift away from ’90s-era “tough on crime” policies that left Black people disproportionately incarcerated. Proponents of the legislation, which halves wait times to apply for expungements of nonviolent convictions, say the change is long overdue.But prosecutors and Republican lawmakers — even those who support second chances in concept — said the measuresends the wrong message as reducing crime remains a top concern.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” said Christopher Dews, a lobbyist working for Baltimore-based criminal justice advocacy groups Out for Justice and the Job Opportunities Task Force. “It’s the most expansive expungement bill that we have had in almost a decade.”
Under the new law, anyone convicted of qualifyingmisdemeanors could apply to expunge their record five years after their sentence is completed; those convicted of specific nonviolent felonies could apply after seven years. More than 70,00 people applied for expungements in 2019, according to an analysis of the bill by the Department of Legislative Services, and the changes could open up the process to tens of thousands of Marylanders with charges ranging from felony burglary to misdemeanor prostitution and second-degree assault (more commonly known as assault and battery).
After a sentence is completed, including parole, probation and mandatory supervision, applicants would petition the court where the original case was held for an expungement. The process takes about 90 days from the filing of the petition, and a prosecutor has 30 days to object to a request.
Champions of the law expect it to have an outsize influence on Black people, who,according to state legislative reports, make up about 30 percent of the overall state population but roughly 70 percent of the prison population.
While some liberal lawmakers say the legislation does not go far enough and should encompass more serious convictions, opponents question whether too much attention has been put on the needs of those who have committed crimes at the expense of crime prevention.
At issue for prosecutors, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said, is what happens if someone whose convictions have been wiped away is charged again. Anyone with an expunged record can answer “no” truthfully in court if a judge asks whether they’ve been convicted, he said.
“You are allowed to say no. So you could be in a courtroom for that third burglary and … you can you can say, ‘No, I’ve never been convicted’ because the expungement takes it away,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons why I had advocated for what we call shielding. And that is if you can’t get a job because you had a bar fight seven years ago, well, then let’s just shield it from the public view. But don’t hide it from the police, the judges and the prosecutors.”
Political clashes over competing visions for public safety have escalated in recent years in Maryland and across the country as a pandemic-era uptick in crime ran up against reform efforts rooted in public outcry after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis three years ago.
“This is just another example, candidly, of the attitude here, which is that we always need to be looking out for how we can take care of those who have committed crimes and make things more fair for them … instead of really going after and doing things to strengthen our laws in dealing with those committing criminal offenses,” state Senate Minority Leader Justin Ready (R-Carroll) said during the debate.
A Goucher College poll released this month found that 83 percent of Marylanders said it was “extremely” or “very” important for Moore to reduce crime during his first term. It was one of the leading concerns among residents.
In recent years, the state has enacted laws barring colleges from asking prospective students about their criminal histories; removing the governor from the decision on whether to grant parole to individuals serving life sentences; and abolishing life without parole for those who committed crimes as juveniles. Last year, in advance of legalizing cannabis, a measure was passed to allow people who were arrested for marijuana possession to have their records expunged after three years and others serving time for simple possession to get their sentences reconsidered. All of this builds on the Maryland Second Chance Act, a bipartisan effort eight years ago to shield certain nonviolent misdemeanor criminal records from public view, making it easier for formerly incarcerated people to get a job.
Those revisionsleft many surprised by Maryland’s national ranking of 42nd longest wait time for record expungement from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, an advocacy group that works on criminal justice initiatives.
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