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Thousands of Missourians could have criminal records sealed under Clean Slate Initiative

Members of the Missouri Workers Center gather Tuesday, March 12, 2024 for a lobby day at the Missouri State Capitol building in Jefferson City. If passed, bipartisan Clean Slate Initiative legislation would grant more than half a million Missourians automatic expungement of eligible arrest and conviction records.
Missouri Workers Center
Members of the Missouri Workers Center gather Tuesday for a lobby day at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City. If passed, bipartisan Clean Slate Initiative legislation would grant more than a half-million Missourians automatic expungement of eligible arrest and conviction records.

More than a half-million Missourians could have their arrest and conviction records expunged of minor offenses if either of two Senate and two House bills, supported by the Missouri Clean Slate Initiative, are passed.

The campaign, which was officially launched last year, is backing two similar pieces of legislation that are still awaiting a judiciary hearing this session — SB 763, sponsored by Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, and SB 1161, sponsored by Sen. Curtis Trent, R-Battlefield. Over 50 organizations are signed on as partners with the Clean Slate Campaign, including various re-entry and faith-based organizations, and the Missouri Workers Center.

Williams said the bills provide an opportunity for many types of nonviolent criminal records to be eligible to be sealed under Missouri law. Most are already eligible for expungement, he said.

“People make mistakes, and those mistakes shouldn’t follow them for the rest of their lives,” Williams said. “We have so many different people in my community that I’ve represented throughout the state, predominantly underserved communities, that have to deal with the stigma of a record that prevents them from getting access to housing. It creates ongoing obstacles when it comes to long-term employment, education, as well as family well-being.”

Senate bills 763 and 1161 have been assigned to the Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. In addition to the Senate bills, the initiative is pushing two similar House bills that include HB 2108, sponsored by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, and HB 2555, sponsored by Rep. Justin Hicks, R-Lake St. Louis.

Both of these bills are similar in nature to the Senate bills, providing for a more automated expungement process of low-level offenses.

Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, reacts to seeing a colleague on Thursday, May 11, 2023, during the waning hours of the legislative session in Jefferson City, Mo.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri state Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, proposed a Senate bill that could help more than a half-million Missourians have their arrest and conviction records expunged of minor offenses.

Right now the state has an expungement statute that allows for certain minor offenses to be expunged, meaning they’re no longer visible to the public. Depending on the offense, some are retained, so if the person commits another act, their record will be accessible by the courts.

Trent explained that the primary goal of the campaign is to make the existing expungement laws automatic, so that eligible people can have their records expunged without having to take further action.

Missouri’s expungement law was last changed two years ago by changing the time a petition for expungement can be filed, Williams said.

“If you were convicted of a misdemeanor nonviolent offense, it used to be three years before you were eligible for expungement, but we lowered it to one. And for nonviolent felony offenses it was seven years, and we lowered it to three.”

Prosecutors must file an objection within 60 days from notification of expungement by the Office of State Courts Administrator if they wish to contest it.

The Missouri State Capitol on Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Capitol last May in Jefferson City.

Calling for change

Workers from the Missouri Workers Center met Tuesday with their elected representatives at the state Capitol in Jefferson City to urge the policy’s passage.

Marieta Ortiz, a member of the Missouri Workers Center who attended the lobby day, was convicted of a felony in 2008 and has since been working at a restaurant earning low wages in Kansas City. But since being released, her criminal record has denied her access to better housing and jobs, she said.

“Being a felon feels like, when you check that box, no matter if you did your time, you still feel like you are being punished,” Ortiz said. “Getting my felony expunged would allow me to find better paying jobs and stable housing. It would also show the new generation, like my 8-year-old son, that yes, Mommy did the crime, but she dealt with her mistake and there is a pathway to start a new life.”

Some workers with felony records said their criminal background has prevented them from accessing better job opportunities and housing. Many of the workers have eligible records or know someone who does.

Worker Center member Fran Marion is a single mother of two who has worked in fast food for more than 20 years. She said a clean slate would bring the U.S. closer to having real opportunities and true freedom, just like the lauded poet and author Langston Hughes envisioned.

“Through my lived experience, I know issues of economic inequality, racism and criminal justice are connected,” Marion said. “We can’t talk about having a record without discussing the root causes of crimes like the one I committed, the poverty wages that landed me in this situation in the first place.”

While more than 500,000 Missourians are eligible for record sealing, the process is complex and costly, and only 1% successfully obtain expungement, according to the Missouri Workers Center. Nationally, 6.5% of people get their records cleared within five years of becoming eligible, while tens of millions of eligible people are unable to get relief.

Clean Slate has been signed into law in 12 states, including Utah, Michigan, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. It allows millions of people — especially people of color who are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system — to move on with their lives and secure a brighter future, officials said. Illinois has more than 2 million people eligible for records expungement, but the process is not automatic, and Clean Slate says more than 90% of those eligible have not yet started the expungement process.

Other takeaways:

  • One year after a record has been sealed, people are 11% more likely to be employed, according to paperprisons.org
  • On average, the wages of people receiving expungements increase by more than 20% just one year after their record has been sealed. 
  • 5 years after expungement, individuals were less likely than members of the general public to be convicted of a crime.
Lacretia Wimbley is a general assignment reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.