At the beginning of each year since 2017, CCRC has issued a report on legislation enacted in the past year that is aimed at reducing the barriers faced by people with a criminal record in the workplace, at the ballot box, and in many other areas of daily life. These reports have documented the steady progress of what last year’s report characterized as “a full-fledged law reform movement” aimed at restoring rights and status to individuals who have successfully navigated the criminal law system. The legislative momentum, which slowed a bit during the first year of the pandemic, picked up again in 2021.
The title of this post introduces our annual report on new laws enacted during the past year, and emphasizes the continuum from reentry (for those who go to jail or prison) to the full restoration of rights and status represented by reintegration. Recent research indicates that most people with a conviction never have a second one, and that the likelihood of another conviction declines rapidly as more time passes. The goal of full reintegration is thus both an economic and moral imperative.
In the past year the bipartisan commitment to a reintegration agenda has seemed more than ever grounded in economic imperatives, as pandemic dislocations have brought home the need to support, train, and recruit workers who are essential to rebuilding the businesses that are the lifeblood of the economy. If there is any one thing that will end unwarranted discrimination against people with a criminal history, it is a recognition that it does not pay.
Our 2021 report highlights key developments in reintegration reforms from the past year. It documents that 40 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government enacted 151 legislative bills and took a number of additional executive actions to restore rights and opportunities to people with an arrest or conviction history. As in past years, a majority of these new laws involved individual record clearing: All told, an astonishing 36 states enacted 92 separate laws that revise, supplement or limit public access to individual criminal records to reduce or eliminate barriers to opportunity. Most of these laws established or expanded laws authorizing expungement, sealing, or set-aside of convictions or arrest records. Several states enacted judicial record clearing laws for the very first time, and a number of states authorized “clean slate” automatic clearing. Executive pardoning was revived in several states where it had been dormant for years.
In addition, many of the new laws enacted general provisions limiting considering of criminal record in economic settings: 17 states enacted 26 new laws regulating employment and occupational licensing, and more than a dozen other states enacted laws facilitating access to housing, education, driver’s licenses, and public benefits.
Finally, civil rights restoration continued to make progress: Four states took steps to restore voting rights upon release from prison, bringing the total in that category to 21 (with another two states and D.C. not disenfranchising at all). Three other states and the federal government took steps to expand awareness of voting eligibility by those in jail or prison or after release, and four states acted to restore eligibility for jury service and public office.
Overall, the productivity of state legislatures in 2021 in pursuing a commitment to reintegration mirrors their performance in 2019, itself a year that broke every record. This year’s rich harvest brings the total number of criminal record reforms enacted in the past three years to over 400 separate laws.
Looking ahead to 2022, we predict a continuing expansion of eligibility for record clearing and removal of access barriers like outstanding court debt and application-related costs; efforts to improve records management to accommodate automation of record clearance; extension of state fair employment laws and facilitation of occupational licensing; and continued progress toward dismantling the structure of felony disenfranchisement. Hopefully 2022 will see some reform action in Congress, including to address restrictions on access to government-guaranteed loans to small businesses owned or managed by people with a criminal history. We have come a long way in the past five years, but there is still a long way to go.
From Reentry to Reintegration, Criminal Record Reforms in 2021 is available here. It includes our third annual legislative Report Card recognizing the most (and least) productive legislatures in 2021. The body of the report provides topical discussions of last year’s reform measures, followed by an appendix documenting and summarizing the new laws by jurisdiction. More detailed analysis of each state’s law is available in the CCRC Restoration of Rights Project.
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