Democrats seek to scrub criminal records to prevent prolonged punishment

“At some point, I think the concept of punishment is supposed to be finite."

People line up outside the El Paso County Judicial Building on Oct. 3, 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

Heather McBroom’s stint with drug addiction follows her to this day.

She said she was studying to be a teacher at Pikes Peak Community College when her friends first gave her methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug that, much like Adderall, can improve focus. She became addicted. And like most people in the throes of addiction, she sold the drug to support her habit. In 2000, she was arrested and slapped with a felony, later serving three years in community corrections.

She served her time, she said, but that conviction still dogs her.

Her felony prevented her from becoming a teacher, so she started her own business and now works as a paralegal in Colorado Springs. Even so, some insurance companies won’t hire her because of her record. She can’t notarize documents. And landlords routinely deny her rental applications, she said.

She wants to take responsibility for her crime and be a contributing member of society, she said, but “you have to allow me the right to do that with a clean slate.”

Heather McBroom came to the state Capitol on April 11 to testify in support of a record sealing bill. (Photo by John Herrick)

McBroom came to the state Capitol on Thursday to testify in support of a bill that would make it easier for people to seal their criminal records, including any convictions or records of arrests. The House Judiciary Committee postponed a vote while lawmakers make some final tweaks to the bill.

Criminal records can be a barrier to finding work and housing, making it more difficult to transition back into society after incarceration. Studies have found lack of employment is a key reason ex-cons end up back in prison.

Several efforts are underway at the state legislature to prohibit employers, college admissions and landlords from even asking applicants about their criminal records.

“At some point, I think the concept of punishment is supposed to be finite,” said Rep. Mike Weissman, a Democrat from Aurora who is sponsoring the record-sealing bill. He added, “I do not think criminal records ought to be a form of punishment.”

The bill would allow people with certain misdemeanor and felony convictions to petition a judge to have their record sealed. The judge must seal the record so long as certain conditions are met. If the district attorney objects, there would be a hearing. Certain high-level crimes require a hearing and give the judge more discretion. In some cases, individuals with felonies would have to wait years after they complete their sentence before petitioning to have their record sealed.

Records related to certain traffic violations and domestic abuse or sexual offenses would not be eligible for sealing. Law enforcement still would have access to any sealed records. And the bill allows the public to petition to have records unsealed for certain people, such as public officials.

The district attorney would be required to notify victims when a petition is filed. But victims’ advocates still have concerns. They want to see a requirement that district attorneys consult victims and read their testimony to the judge in the event of a hearing.   

“The voice that isn’t heard in that process is the victim’s voice,” said Emily Tofte Nestaval, executive director of Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center. 

Some attorneys and lawmakers want to see a provision in the bill that would prohibit district attorneys from requiring defendants to waive their right to have records sealed as part of a plea agreement.

Such legal clauses in plea deals are unusual, attorneys say, but still common under District Attorney Dan May’s leadership in the 4th Judicial District in El Paso County.

“It seems contrary to state policy for a plea agreement to contain a clause that violates state policy,” said Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs who is sponsoring the bill.

In 2017, Lee wrote into law a provision barring district attorneys from requiring juveniles to waive their right to have their records sealed as a condition of plea agreements. He said he intends to include a similar provision in this bill that would do the same for adults.

Pete Lee outside Poor Richards in Colorado Springs. (Photo by John Herrick)

It’s unclear why DA May has maintained this policy. Lee Richards, a spokeswoman for the 4th Judicial District, said May was unavailable for comment on Friday. 

McBroom signed such a plea agreement after she was arrested for selling meth. She does not know if the bill, as written, will allow her to have her record sealed. But, she said, she still intends to try. 

She said she’s grateful for her sentence to community corrections.

“I got what I needed. I got the treatment. I got the help,” McBroom said. “I got the time that was needed to clear my head and make better decisions afterward.” 

But the long-lasting consequences of her conviction stunted her career.

“You’re kinda limited in terms of what you can do,” she said. “I would be a lot more successful without having to fight some of those battles.”

3 COMMENTS

  1. I think it would be more honest, more effective, and give greater integrity to all parties for the record to be updated to show efforts made to repair harm, to become a good citizen, to make amends–rather than just to blot out the truth of the past. Again, if there are victims involved, they are not afforded that same luxury of simply “sealing the record” as if it never happened. Of course it could be more expensive to manage, but it would encourage truth and self-awareness over lies and suppression of fact. Why couldn’t positive things be added to a person’s record? I think that is fairer to all the people, past and future, who in some way are affected by a crime. And it honors truth as a guiding principle of our society.

    • Since you appear to want to make sure that past transgressions leave a permanent mark…we could brand offenders.

      If that seems too harsh, maybe they should just wear scarlet letters for the rest of their lives.

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