The Rhode Island House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill on June 8 that would allow judges in the state to expunge the criminal records of individuals with as many as five misdemeanor convictions. A similar bill stalled in the Senate in 2016 after clearing the House. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin is championing the bill, and the measure has a diverse group of supporters ranging from civil and minority rights advocates to members of the gun lobby.
Expunging criminal records makes it easier for individuals who have made mistakes in the past to find jobs and improve their lives. Under current Rhode Island law, judges are only able to expunge the records of first-time nonviolent offenders. However, judges were still able to use this law to clear the records of more than 11,500 offenders in 2014. Under the bill passed by the House, offenders would become eligible for expungement 10 years after their last misdemeanor conviction. This eligibility is lost if offenders are charged with a crime during the interim.
The records of those convicted of domestic violence, driving while under the influence or refusing to submit to a chemical toxicology test would not be eligible for expungement under the bill, but the measure contains few other restrictions. In addition to expungement, Rhode Island law allows criminal records to be sealed when offenders have completed five-year deferred sentences.
Background checks are now a part of routine screening, and even minor mistakes can make it difficult to find a job, rent an apartment or obtain a permit. Experienced criminal defense attorneys would likely support measures that focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and they could explain the consequences of a conviction to their clients when discussing the possibility of entering into a negotiated plea agreement.