Minnesota may not have a reputation for being a state that is easy on crime, but they are opting to join a relatively forgiving movement this year. Like many states over the past couple of years, Minnesota will be making it easier for those with certain types of minor convictions to have their criminal records sealed. Sealing a record, while one step short of permanent erasure (also known as expungement), makes it inaccessible to those doing background checks – including potential employers. This limitation, it is worth noting, applies purely to members of the public making a request. In cases where it’s deemed relevant, judges and law enforcement officials will still have access to a person’s full and unedited criminal record.
The move is in line with other recent movements to give those with minor records a better chance at getting back into the workforce and everyday life without the stigma attached to a criminal conviction. Oftentimes, these convictions may even be for crimes committed as a minor, but, depending on state law, have stayed on the individual’s permanent record. In turn, such convictions can follow someone for years, making it hard for them to find gainful employment or enroll in school and higher education programs.
The new law in Minnesota took effect on January 1st and allows those with misdemeanor convictions to ask a judge to seal their record. Additionally, those who have been convicted of some non-violent felonies will also be eligible under the new law. Judges would be, under certain situations, allowed to pick and choose which convictions would be sealed (though obviously would need reason to do so). Any records awarded the sealing would then ‘go away’ for the purposes of public inquiry.
One advocate of the new law is 37 year-old Sherry Niesen, who was convicted of a fifth degree assault charge back in 2010. Despite the assault charge being the lowest level of assault charge possible in the state of Minnesota, and the fact that her record is otherwise spotless, she feels that the course of her life has been haunted by that one moment. Limitations go further than employment opportunities too, Niesen and those like her have discovered; sometimes even finding housing can be difficult for those with a criminal record.
While you might think that these kinds of limitations affect a relatively small or niche segment of the population, you wouldn’t be further from the truth. In Minnesota, nearly one quarter of the state’s residents have a criminal record. While it is unknown exactly how many people will qualify for full or partial record sealing under the new law, it will certainly be a substantial number.
At least one attorney on the state’s Council on Crime and Justice, Joshua Esmay, is happy to see the new law go into effect. Esmay says that the one thing you can tell for sure from a criminal record is that someone made a mistake in the past, but that extrapolating information on the future based upon that mistake is often misguided. This is especially true when the crime is a small misdemeanor and occurred many years ago.