As lawmakers weigh a slate of criminal justice reforms during the upcoming 2023 legislative session, expungement of criminal offenses will once again be a key topic on their agenda.
Advocates will again push to shorten the waiting period required to expunge misdemeanors and certain felonies. And the legalization of cannabis in July will create other opportunities for changes in expungement laws.
“I am certain expungement bills are going to come through,” said Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery, who is vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “We’ve seen an interesting variety of them.”
Expungement proponents say that offering a chance to shield or destroy old criminal records will give Marylanders better access to jobs, housing and other resources that often use background checks.
Christopher Dews, a senior policy advocate with the Job Opportunities Task Force, said allowing for earlier expungement will open new opportunities for thousands of residents with convictions on their records.
“If people do not have access to employment, housing, education, what are they going to do to survive?” Dews said. “This is our crime-fighting strategy as well as our employment and jobs strategy.”
Under current law, certain misdemeanors are eligible for expungement 10 years after the sentence for the crime has been completed in full, including parole or probation. For eligible nonviolent felonies, the waiting period is 15 years.
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The proposed REDEEM Act would reduce the waiting times to three years for misdemeanors and five years for nonviolent felonies. The waiting period would still begin after the completion of any sentence and probation or parole.
“Our bill is simply saying, once a person has served their time, let’s not give them a second sentence of 10 years for a misdemeanor, or a second sentence of 15 years for a nonviolent felony,” Dews said.
State Sen. Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery, is a co-sponsor of the REDEEM Act. (The acronym stands for Record Expungement Designed to Enhance the Employability for the 1.5 million Marylanders shut out of the workforce because of a criminal record.)
“It’s symbolic of exactly what we’re trying to do,” Waldstreicher said. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”
Waldstreicher will also sponsor a bill that would allow for the automatic expungement of low-level cannabis possession charges if Gov.-elect Wes Moore chooses to pardon them at the state level.
Marylanders’ vote in November to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis also brought a new system of rules for expunging old cannabis charges. In cases where cannabis possession was the only charge, Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services must automatically expunge the charge by July 1, 2024.
(Lawmakers used a limited definition of expungement that only means removal from the state’s Criminal Justice Information System, not complete obliteration of all court records.)
The automatic expungement provision will remove charges for many Marylanders, but in cases where possession of cannabis was not the only charge, the expungement will not be automatic. A person with convictions for multiple charges in the same case, including possession of marijuana, will be able to petition for expungement of only the cannabis charge.
The petition process means there is an additional barrier to expungement for people with multiple charges.
“Legal procedures are intimidating to people,” said Chris Sweeney, the Workforce Development Manager for Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. “For someone who is not a lawyer, I think that even having to take the step of going to the courthouse and getting the right paper, filling it out correctly, it’s definitely a barrier.”
Waldstreicher’s proposed bill would create an automatic expungement process for possession of marijuana charges even when they are not the only charge in a case. The bill would be triggered if Moore, the incoming Democratic governor, chooses to pardon possession of cannabis charges once he takes office.
President Joe Biden pardoned all simple possession of marijuana charges at the federal level in October. Equivalent charges at the state level, however, must be handled by the states individually. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has not issued a pardon for state charges during the final months of his administration.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Moore did not say specifically whether the governor-elect will issue blanket pardons, though Moore has generally supported cannabis legalization and expungement of simple possession charges.
“The Gov.-Elect was clear on where he stood on this issue during the campaign, and has an incredible depth of expertise and experience fighting for justice and equity,” said the spokesperson, Carter Elliott. “We are currently working on the Governor-Elect’s legislative agenda, and exploring every possible mechanism that will be at the Governor’s Office’s disposal to further equity and justice as it relates to cannabis, following the overwhelming endorsement of Maryland voters on the ballot in November.”
Waldstreicher said he believes Moore will follow Biden’s lead and pardon simple possession charges. Notably, simple possession does not include possession with intent to distribute, a charge that is more associated with drug dealing.
But even with a pardon, people with multiple charges in the same case would still need to petition for expungement of their cannabis possession charge.
“This gets fixed under my bill,” Waldstreicher said. “Where simple possession is pardoned, even if it’s part of a larger unit of convictions, that simple possession conviction would be automatically expunged under my legislation.”