Governor Mark Dayton of Minnesota is of the opinion that once a criminal has paid his or her allotted debt to society, at least for minor crimes, they’re free to lead to their life free of “convict stigma.” At least that’s the message being portrayed with his signing of a recent bill in the state legislature that helps close up a long standing loophole that prevents ease of expungement for even the most minor of crimes in Minnesota. It’s an overhaul to the state’s “expungement law” and it makes it so that judges can now expunge or seal criminal records not only by the courts, but also those collected by and/or remaining within the state executive branch. Previously, this distinction meant that records might still exist indefinitely even after an expungement request had been granted by a judge.
On the matter, Dayton noted that he believes once a person has paid their debt, especially for small offenses (thought he did not state where he would draw the line on various offense types, if it were up to him), they shouldn’t be perpetually punished by society. Politically, the governor isn’t making a bad move either, seeing as roughly one in four of the state’s residents have some sort of criminal record, and signing this law has the potential to ease the lives of many of his constituents.
The biggest problem most ex-convicts run into is discrimination from employers. Employers, for their part, have every right to see a criminal charge disclosed on an application or brought up in a background check and decide not to hire a potential employee. For many, this could mean that getting caught in possession of drugs, for example, as a teenager or young adult could drastically alter their career prospects and advancement a decade or more later. One Minnesotan voiced her support for the new law after stating she’d been stigmatized for almost ten years now following two minor charges.
Some worry about the potential of letting past crimes go undisclosed when interviewing job applicants or even interacting as a customer with workers who have a criminal past. Even under the new law, however, expungements aren’t easy to achieve, and they are only available for those with misdemeanor convictions and who are unlikely to re-offend – sex offenses, drunk driving, murders, and various other felonies cannot be expunged still. To be eligible under the new law, a citizen must undergo a diversion program and can’t have been charged with any crime within the past two years.
Minnesota’s expungement loophole likely doesn’t stand alone when looking at other other states’ laws on expunging criminal records. As such, there may be more debate over similar legislation in other states following Minnesota’s move. Further complications may arise in states like Washington or Colorado, where marijuana possession has recently been made legal, as past crimes become legal under new laws. Advocate groups may begin arguing against the inclusion of such cases in criminal record background databases that employers frequent.
For the moment, however, Minnesota’s past offenders might have a better chance at societal success in the near future, and they’re got a governor to thank for it.