Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the number of Missourians who are eligible for automatic expungement for nonviolent marijuana offenses.
Thanks to voters’ approval of Amendment 3 in November, thousands of Missourians can look forward to automatic expungement for some marijuana-related crimes.
Advocates for automatic expungement, including some Republicans in the state legislature, want that process to be expanded to other misdemeanors and felonies. They are pushing for so-called clean-slate legislation to replace the current Missouri expungement system, which requires citizens to petition the courts to have their records cleared even of minor offenses.
A pair of bills has been filed in the House and Senate with the goal of reducing the time, cost and effort it takes to get criminal records cleared or sealed.
Empower Missouri, a social justice organization, is one of the leading supporters of the clean-slate campaign in the Show-Me state. Other states are taking up similar legislation to automate and speed up the process.
Mallory Rusch, the executive director of Empower Missouri, said the state’s current processes for expunging and clearing records were set up decades ago, before the age of the internet and the background check industry.
“In the last 10 or 20 years there has begun to be a level of recognition that petition-based expungement is not working the way that it was intended,” Rusch said. “The vast majority of employers and landlords utilize background checks when people are applying for jobs or places to live. It has caused irreparable harm to folks who have old criminal records, even if they’re relatively minor.”
Who qualifies for Missouri expungement?
Since the passage of Amendment 3, some marijuana offenses have been automatically expunged or are now eligible to petition for expungement. Clean-slate conversation includes expungement or record sealing for crimes not related to marijuana. But, even with the provisions of Amendment 3, there is much to be sorted out.
Part of the difficulty with Amendment 3’s expungement provisions, Rusch said, is that the text does not lay out specific criminal code violations so that courts can look them up in their records. That means clerks must comb through all of their potentially eligible records to find cases that qualify.
Empower is hoping to get legislation passed that will reduce that administrative workload.
“The state should be able to create a relatively simple algorithm that, other than spot checks, is not going to require this hand searching and hand coding of files,” Rusch said.
In 2016 and 2019, the legislature took steps to make more people eligible for Missouri expungement processes. Still, according to Empower and the clean slate campaign, only 1% of eligible Missourians actually pursue a petition for expungement, a number they believe would rise if the process was more automated and less costly. On average, Empower says, it costs a person about $500 to get their records expunged, not including attorney fees.
According to the Clean Slate Initiative, 518,000 Missourians are eligible to have their records sealed under an expanded expungement protocol.
How do you get a drug charge expunged in Missouri?
Currently, if someone hopes to get an eligible record expunged, they must fill out a petition form and identify all of the records they want removed.
In an information session about expungement practices in mid-December, Jackson County Circuit Judge Janette Rodecap said that the more information included in a petition for expungement, the better. It helps the petition reach all of the state agencies that may have files related to the record.
A person will then need to have a hearing on the petition for expungement.
Currently in Jackson County, a petition filing fee is $112 plus a state fee of $250, which can be waived by a judge if a petitioner files additional paperwork. Rodecap said her court has recently seen some petitions from people whose records aren’t eligible to be expunged, but the court cannot give legal advice when walking someone through the process.
Without an attorney, a person could make a costly mistake in trying to clear their record, Rodecap said.
“It is you as the filer that needs to do some investigation to determine whether you are eligible for an expungement or not before you file,” she said during the information session.
How will the Missouri legislature interact with clean-slate legislation?
State Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, and Sen.-elect Curtis Trent, R-Springfield, are sponsoring clean-slate legislation in 2023 in both the House and Senate. Their proposal would automatically expunge misdemeanor convictions after three years and eligible felony convictions after five years. It would also digitize much of the process, something expungement and clean-slate advocates have said would help with streamlining.
Currently, some records are eligible for Missouri expungement three or more years after the sentence is completed in the case of a felony, and at least one year if the offense was a misdemeanor or municipal violation. Additional pending charges or outstanding fines are causes for denying a petition.
Under the proposed legislation, a person is eligible for automatic expungement of their misdemeanor convictions beginning three years after their sentence was served. People with felony convictions would be eligible for expungement five years after completing their sentences.
Ten states have passed clean-slate legislation since 2018, including Oklahoma and Michigan. The national Clean Slate Initiative advises sponsors of legislation on processes for automating record clearance and using it properly.
Missouri’s proposed legislation would apply retroactively to all who are eligible.
Proponents of clean slate hope to gain traction with an economic argument. Research in 2018 at the University of Michigan found that people are 11% more likely to be employed after having their records expunged and are earning 22% higher wages.
“There’s started to be a real understanding about the economic impacts of some of our criminal justice policies, especially around expungement, and how those records keep people out of the workplace or keep them in really low-paying jobs,” Rusch said.
She added: “A lot of people are trying to hire. And so I think that there’s a really exciting conversation happening around workforce development and how this bill is not only going to benefit the individuals who have a record, but also going to benefit businesses across the state and our economy in general. So many folks have been just shut out of that process altogether.”
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