Extensions on Massachusetts expungement bills viewed by supporters as hopeful sign

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BOSTON >> The Legislature's Judiciary Committee has twice pushed back decision-making deadlines on bills that would allow the destruction of certain juvenile or youthful offender criminal records, a move supporters are interpreting as a "positive sign" that they might see action on the issue before formal sessions end in July.

On May 2, the House and Senate each adopted an extension order giving the committee until June 1 to report out 47 House bills, including four that address expungement and sealing of records. The expungement bills take different approaches, each setting parameters for what records can be erased and through what process.

"I think across the country we're seeing a renewed discussion on both how we treat juveniles in our court system, and the expungement discussion is one that should be had," Rep. Claire Cronin, the Judiciary Committee's House vice chair, told the News Service. "So there have been several bills filed, and they're all on extension which keeps the conversation going."

Cronin, an Easton Democrat, is the sponsor of one of the expungement bills (H 1248), which instructs the courts to expunge records of falsely accused individuals and sets procedures for the expungement of juvenile records.

A similar bill (H 1270), filed by Rep. Carolyn Dykema, was also included in the extension order, as were bills filed by Reps. Gloria Fox (H 1299) and Kay Khan (H 1433).

"We need a little more time to continue the conversation, look at all of the bills a little more closely," Cronin said.

Despite signals from legislative leaders that comprehensive criminal justice reform would wait until the conclusion of a Council on State Governments review of the state's justice system, advocates have urged lawmakers to act this session on a number of issues, including sentencing reform and juvenile records expungement.

Khan said she filed her bill after meeting with members of Lowell's United Teen Equality Center and hearing personal stories about the potential impact of expungement.

"They made a very compelling case about why this would be important to them," she said. "So many of these kids really want to make sure they make a second chance. That, to me, made sense."

Jamel Bonilla, a youth organizer at UTEC and a member of the Teens Leading the Way advocacy coalition, is among those pushing for passage of an expungement bill. After serving 18 months on armed robbery and firearms charges for a crime he committed at 17, Bonilla, now a student at Middlesex Community College, hopes to become a counselor working with children.

"There's a lot of places that wouldn't want someone with a record to work with kids," Bonilla said. "That's what I want to do and if my record holds me back, it's kind of crushing me, crushing my dreams and goals. It's like a life sentence."

According to the state's Office of the Child Advocate, juvenile court records in Massachusetts can be sealed under certain "limited circumstances," but not fully erased or expunged.

"Expungement is not a simple issue," Gail Garinger, who served as child advocate until September 2015, wrote in her office's 2015 annual report. "The appropriate balance must be struck between maximizing opportunities for youth and public safety; in addition, implementation will lead to practical difficulties. An additional concern is whether records stored electronically ever truly go away once they have been created. Further discussion is needed to reconcile the issues raised in the bills that have been filed."

The report expressed support for legislation that would allow automatic expungement of juvenile court records for nonviolent misdemeanors on a first offense, and allow youth to petition the court for expungement of other offenses.

Khan's bill would allow automatic expungement of misdemeanors after completion of a court sentence. Felonies committed before the age of 21 could be expunged by petition after the sentence was served. An identical bill, filed by Sen. Karen Spilka (S 900), was included in a study order, according to a Judiciary Committee staffer.

"I know the fact that there's an extension, I think, is a good sign, a positive sign," said Khan, a Newton Democrat who serves as House chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities.

She said ironing out the details of an expungement bill can be "tricky" because lawmakers "want to be able to do something that everyone's on board with" and allay any potential public safety concerns.

"The extension, I believe, is an indication that there is an interest in the bill and an interest in putting something out, maybe not the bill in its entirety, in this form," Khan said.

Earlier this month, when the Senate accepted the Judiciary Committee's extension order that included the expungement bills, Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester cautioned that the calendar was approaching the "the red zone of the formal legislative session," with limited time remaining to act on major bills.

Sunday, July 31, marks the last day for formal sessions this year.


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