‘Clean Slate’ Legislation Aimed at DC's Criminal Record System

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Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Thursday announced legislation that could make it easier for D.C. residents to seal their criminal records and give them “a clean slate.”

The legislation aims to help the more than 40,000 people arrested in the District, nearly one-third of whom are “no-papered” — meaning the arrest is not prosecuted but leaves a criminal record sure to follow for years to come, and sometimes indefinitely.

An arrest record could affect employability, access to public benefits such as housing programs, access to credit and professional licensing. The current process to seal a record at the D.C. Superior Court can be long and expensive.

The process legally requires the petitioner to prove why they deserve to have their records sealed at the discretion of a judge. About 10,000 people in D.C. seek assistance from public defenders and nonprofit legal groups to seal arrest records each year.

“That [current] process is inconsistent with our values,” Bowser said. “Through this legislation, we will give more individuals, more families, and more neighborhoods a fair shot at success.”

The legislative reforms, which are still in the works, include mandating the automatic sealing of arrests that are not prosecuted or do not result in a conviction, shortening the time period someone must wait for their record to be sealed and reviewing the types of convictions that are eligible for record sealing.

Bowser said the proposed reforms would make the criminal justice system “more equitable and more just.”

She said her office will reach out to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the D.C. Attorney General’s Office and the Metropolitan Police Department for input.

At-Large Council member David Grosso will introduce the legislation to the council.

Criminal record sealing prevents third parties from obtaining arrest records in background checks, but still gives law enforcement; courts; and special employers, like those who work with children and the elderly, access to them.

Current law leaves nearly all felonies and dozens of misdemeanors ineligible for record sealing. A person who is not convicted after an arrest must wait four years to have a record sealed and a person convicted of a crime must wait eight years.

Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen, who also chairs the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, said the reforms would make the city safer and will remove barriers for thousands of District residents trying to successfully re-enter society from prison.

“If we can remove those barriers, they will be more successful … When they are more successful, they are less likely to re-offend,” Allen said.

The Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety will hold a hearing this fall on the matter.

Brian Ferguson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Returning Citizen Affairs, described the story of a Ward 5 mother who was fired from her job after her employer conducted a retroactive background check and found a 2014 conviction for marijuana possession.

He said the records have “no bearing or reflection on who they are now or who they seek to become if given the chance to play on a level playing field.”

Ferguson spent 11 years in prison before having a murder conviction overturned.

Longtime community activist Ron Moten spent five years in prison for a nonviolent, felony drug conviction. Moten has spent the past two decades trying to prevent violence in the city, especially among youth, and he says though he did his time, he is still being punished with a record.

“I went to prison … but when I came home, I immediately began doing great things in the city,” he said. “If I can’t get a second chance, how can I tell [at-risk youth] they will?”