Crime and Justice

Lawmakers scramble to scale back expungement bill

Sen. Dick Sears
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, speaks as the Senate Judiciary Committee considers a bill at the Statehouse in Montpelier on May 3, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A criminal record can be a major obstacle to finding a good job and building a good life, state officials agree. The question is: Where should Vermont draw the line on what crimes can be expunged — that is, erased completely from court records?

Lawmakers and the Scott administration are debating that question now, and legislators are reworking a bill that would greatly expand the types of crimes eligible for expungement.

The Scott administration has expressed concern with the scope of the legislation and asked for a delay in moving it forward.

“Somehow, different groups and the administration began to question the expungement process and what we were doing,” Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said during a meeting Wednesday.  

The bill, S.7, would make records eligible for the expungement of all crimes, except the most serious ones, such as murder, sexual assault, domestic assault and drug trafficking. 

Committee members said the legislation is a way for people who made a mistake not to have that mistake follow them for the rest of their lives, affecting their abilities to obtain certain jobs, housing and government benefits. 

The Senate has already approved the measure on a unanimous vote. It ran into problems as it headed to the House Judiciary Committee.

Jaye Pershing Johnson, the governor’s legal counsel, sent a letter April 22 raising issues with the breadth of the bill. She also questioned the costs of implementing it, as staff members could face a mountain of paperwork associated with the expungements.

Johnson could not immediately be reached Wednesday for comment.

The letter was signed by Johnson; Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation; Michael Schirling, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety; and James Baker, interim corrections commissioner.

The letter was sent to the leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees and the House Corrections and Institutions Committee.

“To our knowledge, there is no single list of the hundreds of crimes which would be eligible for expungement, but they include criminal threatening and domestic terrorism, all of the fraud crimes — including identity theft, insurance fraud and embezzlement — and all crimes involving the sexual exploitation of children,” the letter stated. 

“Once these records are expunged, theoretically with no waiting period if waived by prosecutor, how are state agencies or employers to put into place the guardrails needed to protect our most vulnerable Vermonters?” the letter asked.

The letter also stated that the corrections department uses criminal history in assessing a person’s risk and needs.

“If you hope to accurately assess criminogenic behaviors to attach appropriate treatments and reduce recidivism, you need a criminal history available for this purpose,” the letter stated.

Pieciak said Wednesday afternoon that on matters related to the financial services industry, he is satisfied the legislation and existing laws provide enough safeguards to address any concerns he had.

He said he signed the administration’s letter last week to allow him the time he needed to do more research on the legislation’s impacts, which he has now completed. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee talked Wednesday with Assistant Attorney General David Scherr about amendments that could reduce the number of qualifying crimes, set up a study on adding more in the future and simplify the expungement process. 

Scherr said that, while he was working on changes, he wanted to be clear that the attorney general’s office supported the measure initially passed by the Senate.

“Is it important that we remember and keep on the record forever very old offenses?” Scherr asked. ”We don’t think that serves a public safety purpose and does a lot of harm that is unnecessary.” 

Sears talked about making changes that would avert a veto from the governor.

“Some improvement is better than none,” Scherr told the panel. “Let’s not let perfect be the enemy of good.” 

Marshall Pahl, deputy defender general and chief juvenile defender, said the measure had drawn broad support in the Senate and from the Vermont Sentencing Commission, which included members of the Scott administration. 

Pahl said he was disappointed with the idea of scaling back the proposal, but, like Scherr, believed moving ahead with something was better than nothing.

“We had hoped to see something better,” Pahl said. “We think this is a step forward. It’s just a very, very tiny step.”

Sears expressed frustration that the administration waited until last week to raise its concerns.

“We started this bill in January,” he said.

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