A coalition of criminal justice experts is urging Massachusetts to improve how it treats people previously charged with crimes, saying the state is unnecessarily burdening former defendants — especially those prosecuted as juveniles — with lasting records of past misdeeds.
During a recent five-hour hearing before the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, attorneys, reform advocates, post-release reentry specialists, previously incarcerated people, and former court officials described a justice system that too often hands down effectively permanent punishments.
They said Massachusetts makes it unusually difficult to seal or expunge old criminal records, allowing employers, landlords, professional licensing bodies, and college admission offices to access them years later. While many other jurisdictions automatically wipe out certain types of previous legal records, a 2018 Massachusetts law requires former defendants to apply for relief individually and strictly limits eligibility; a recent Globe analysis of the process found few people have applied and even fewer have succeeded.
The result of the state’s cautious approach, advocates said, is that most people prosecuted in Massachusetts never receive a true “fresh start” after completing their sentences. Instead, they find their criminal records — which can sometimes detail arrests and cases that did not result in a conviction — continually standing in the way of jobs, apartments, and other opportunities that could help them build stable lives.
“We’re well behind the national curve on this issue,” Jay Blitzman, a law professor who spent 24 years as a judge in Lowell Juvenile Court, said at the hearing. “We know most juveniles will not [reoffend], yet we saddle them with the collateral consequences of an eternal stigma.”
Invoking remarks by Ralph Gants, the former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court who sparked a series of reform efforts before his death last year, Blitzman said the state must “let young people ‘get past the past’ to have a more productive future.”
Legislators have proposed a number of changes, although the prospects remain unclear.
One measure, filed by state Senator Cynthia Creem, would significantly expand the number and type of juvenile records that can be cleared after enough time has passed, with exceptions for crimes that resulted in serious injury. She said the bill would not only help former juvenile offenders who made mistakes while their brains were still developing, a growing consideration in assessing adolescent culpability, but also improve public safety and reduce taxpayer costs.
“States that do this see reductions in recidivism and improved outcomes” among former defendants, Creem said.
The bill would also require the Massachusetts Probation Service to improve its record keeping around sealing and expungement. The recent Globe report found the agency was largely unable to provide details about the people submitting petitions or the nature of their records, a shortcoming officials blamed on antiquated software.
Critics say it’s imperative that the state collect more data about who has been able to seal or expunge their records, given the stark racial disparities throughout the Massachusetts justice system revealed in a scathing 2020 Harvard Law School review ordered by Gants.
“Juvenile court law in Massachusetts is progressive in many respects,” Blitzman said. “But as it regards critical issues such as expungement and sealing, as well as transparency and gathering data concerning race and ethnicity, unfortunately, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Other proposals under consideration by the judicial committee would automatically seal juvenile records after three years, destroy records of arrests that didn’t result in a conviction, provide former defendants with “certificates of rehabilitation” after they complete their sentences, restrict the ability of employers and licensing boards to deny applicants solely on the basis of a past charge, and prevent certain criminal records from being submitted to a national FBI database, since federal officials don’t always comply with subsequent requests from states to delete their copies of expunged records.
Lawyers say such changes would help more teenagers move past troubled upbringings.
Dulcineia Goncalves, who directs the Youth Advocacy Division of the state’s public defender office, recounted representing a 15-year-old who was charged with several felonies following a family scuffle. By her senior year of high school, Goncalves said, the teen was doing much better, until an after-school program where she had been excited to work rescinded a job offer because of her record, plunging her into despair.
“She felt like she would never get to pursue her dreams,” Goncalves said, calling on the state to give those with juvenile records “an actual opportunity to pursue jobs, careers, and dreams and aspirations like all other children in Massachusetts.”
A number of former defendants also testified in support of the proposed reforms. Timothy Muise, who said he left state prison in 2017 after serving more than 19 years, told legislators that a certificate documenting his growth and rehabilitation while incarcerated would have been a helpful counterpoint to his criminal record as he sought employment after his release.
“I am not the man you want on your city’s or town’s streets, strung out on heroin and looking for money,” Muise implored lawmakers. “You’d much rather have me employed.”
Muise now works for Community Work Services, a Boston nonprofit, helping other former inmates find jobs.
“I see firsthand how they are discriminated against — how they have to [settle] for substandard, low-paying jobs,” he said. “These are men and women that stand on their own two feet and who are rehabilitated ... but we lose them in the gaps. They come out [of prison] wanting to do the right thing, with the wherewithal to do the right thing, and they’re turned away at almost every door.”
Other people prosecuted as juveniles expressed intense frustration with the way criminal charges are presented without context.
One 19-year-old woman, an organizer at the UTEC youth nonprofit in Lowell who gave her name as Lily, recalled how she ran away from a group home as a troubled 16-year-old before thinking better of it and returning in the middle of the night. Several hours later, she woke up to find two male police officers trying to drag her out of bed in her underwear; the ensuing, brief struggle resulted in a charge of assaulting a police officer, she said. Now, most employers won’t even grant her an interview.
“Just because a person was charged doesn’t mean what the paper says actually happened,” she said. “There is a human aspect to what I’m living, and I’d like to be forgiven for my mistakes.”