We are pleased to release a new report describing the present landscape of laws in the United States aimed at restoring rights and opportunities after an arrest or conviction. This report, titled The Many Roads to Reintegration, is an update and refresh of our previous national survey, last revised in 2018
The report covers voting and firearms rights, an array of record relief remedies such as expungement and pardon, and consideration of criminal record in employment and occupational licensing.
In each section of the report we assign a grade to each state for each type of relief. We collate these grades to produce an overall ranking on the nine categories that we graded. That ranking is reproduced below.
We are encouraged by the amazing progress that has been made in the past few years toward neutralizing the effect of a criminal record since the present reform era got underway less than a decade ago. The last two years in particular have produced a bumper crop of new laws in almost every U.S. jurisdiction.
Some of our top performers have been long-time leaders in promoting reintegration, including Illinois, Utah, and Minnesota. But some of the most progressive lawmaking has come from states newer to the field, like Nevada, Colorado, and North Dakota. These and the other states in our Top Ten set an example that we hope will inspire other jurisdictions in the months and years to come.
Voting, Record Relief, Employment & Licensing
The report considers remedies for three of the four main types of collateral consequences: loss of civil rights, dissemination of damaging record information, and loss of opportunities and benefits, notably in the workplace. 1
Its first chapter finds that the trend toward restoring the vote to those living in the community—a long-time goal of national reform organizations and advocates—has accelerated in recent years. Further reforms may be inspired by the high-profile litigation over Florida’s “pay-to-vote” system, which shines a national spotlight on financial barriers to the franchise. This chapter also finds that systems for restoring firearms rights are considerably more varied, with many states providing relief through the courts but others requiring a full pardon.
The second chapter deals with laws intended to revise or supplement criminal records, an issue that has attracted the most attention in legislatures but that has benefited the least from national guidance. It is divided into several parts, based on the type of record affected (conviction or non-conviction) and the type of relief offered (e.g. pardon, expungement, set-aside, certificates, diversion, etc.). The wide variety in eligibility, process, and effect of these record relief laws speaks volumes about how far the Nation is from common ground.
The third chapter concerns the area in which perhaps the most dramatic progress has been made just since 2018: the regulation of how criminal record is considered by public employers and occupational licensing agencies. Legislatures have been guided and encouraged by helpful model laws and policies proposed by two national organizations with differing regulatory philosophies: The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, and the National Employment Law Project, a workers’ rights research and advocacy group. Regulation of private employment has also been influenced by national models, although to a lesser extent and more needs to be done in this area.
This report makes clear that substantial progress has been made in the past several years toward devising and implementing an effective and functional system for restoring rights and status after arrest or conviction. The greatest headway has been made in restoring rights of citizenship and broadening workplace opportunities controlled by the state. The area where there is least consensus, and that remains most challenging to reformers, is managing dissemination of damaging criminal record information. Time will tell how the goal of a workable and effective relief system is achieved in our laboratories of democracy.
Grading and Ranking the States
After our discussion of each type of relief, we assign a grade to each state, D.C., and federal law. In an appendix, we collate these grades to produce a ranking of states and D.C. on the nine categories that we graded. 2 That ranking is below. Our grading judgments deserve a comment. Gabriel Chin’s introduction to the report describes the operational features of a desirable relief system: accessible, effective, coordinated, fair, and administrable. Because we have not studied the actual operation of the relief systems in the report, we cannot say for certain whether or to what extent any of them deliver on these five features. Our grades are based solely on the text of each state’s law, leaving more nuanced judgments to practitioners, researchers, and the law’s intended beneficiaries. Hopefully, these grades will challenge, encourage, and inspire additional reforms in the months and years ahead.
National Ranking of Restoration Laws
8: New York
10: North Dakota
12: New Hampshire
12: New Jersey
15: New Mexico
25: Rhode Island
30: North Carolina
39: South Carolina
42: West Virginia
44: South Dakota
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- This report does not cover the fourth main type of consequence: limits on personal freedom—including sex offender registration, civil commitment, and immigration consequences. Relief mechanisms for these are quite complex and built into the law of each issue. We offer a 50-state comparison chart for relief from sex offender registration, https://ccresourcecenter.org/state-restoration-profiles/50-state-comparison-relief-from-sex-offender-registration-obligations/. For resources on immigration consequences, see https://www.ilrc.org/crimes. With respect to the third type of consequence: loss of opportunities and benefits, this report covers laws providing relief for employment and occupational licensing (the two areas most subject to relief under state law), but does not cover housing, government benefits, or other opportunities.
- The nine categories graded are: loss and restoration of the vote, pardon, conviction relief (felony and misdemeanor graded separately), judicial certificates, deferred adjudication, non-conviction records, employment, and occupational licensing. In determining these rankings, each of the nine categories was assigned equal weight, except that deferred adjudication and certificates of relief were each assigned 50% weight. We did not grade restoration of firearms rights because the laws were too varied to helpfully compare.