A 40-year-old drug charge could prevent you from getting a new job. A conviction when you were 19 may mean a rejected student loan application.
Many domestic violence convictions preclude offenders from owning a firearm for the rest of their lives. And Canada refuses entry to potential visitors if they’ve been convicted of a variety of crimes in the U.S.
These kinds of collateral, long-term consequences have been the target of criminal justice reform efforts around the country in recent years.
And in New Hampshire, one of the main tools being used to address them is the annulment process — known as expungement in the rest of the country — whereby a person can have a past arrest or conviction erased from their record after serving their sentence and completing a waiting period that varies depending on the crime.
New Hampshire has one of the most generous sets of annulment laws in the country, according to national experts, and county attorneys say that in recent years they’ve seen a significant increase in the number of Granite Staters seeking a clean slate.
“This is a big deal now. People are being really aggressive on moving for annulments,” said Strafford County Attorney Tom Velardi. “I’ve had people who’ve asked me to have crimes annulled from the ’70s and they say that they’re applying for a mortgage and it shows up when a credit report is run.”
Between 2014 and 2018, state police removed 23,992 records from the criminal history database as a result of annulment petitions. More are likely to come. A major expansion of the annulment statute took effect Aug. 31, 2018, and another expansion bill, SB 311, passed the Senate earlier this year with bipartisan support.
The rapid and sweeping changes are raising alarms for police and victim advocates, who say that in their efforts to reduce collateral consequences for past offenders New Hampshire lawmakers are jeopardizing victims’ rights and public safety.
SB 311 is a particular cause for concern, they say. Among other measures, it would allow people convicted of a first-time Class A misdemeanor or certain felony drug possession charges to apply for annulments as soon as they complete their sentences. It would also allow indigent defendants convicted of domestic violence charges to expunge their records before they complete paying restitution to their victims, and the waiting period to annul DUI offenses would be reduced from 10 to three years.
“This is going too far and I think this is going to end up being a mistake. Basically you can commit a misdemeanor and as soon as you walk out of the court you can file for an annulment,” said Tuftonboro Police Chief Andrew Shagoury, the past president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. Many misdemeanor sentences consist of fines or short jail terms, rather than years in prison.
“The problem with being able to annul domestic violence crimes at all is that this is a pattern of abuse” that can escalate over time, added Amanda Grady Sexton, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “If you’re just erasing these crimes we have no way to determine the potential lethality in any situation.”
“I honestly think that criminal justice reform has gone too far and it’s being done in a way that infringes on the rights of victims of crime and reduces accountability and public safety,” she said.
The Legislature has passed a law altering the main annulment statute every year since 2011, including a major reform in 2018 that reduced the period a person must wait after completing his or her sentence to have a Class B misdemeanor annulled.
Proponents of the measures, including the ACLU of New Hampshire, which helped author SB 311, say they’re striking a careful balance and are working with legislators to refine SB 311.
“Part of that balance is recognizing that successful reentry benefits everyone and successful reentry prevents recidivism,” said Jeanne Hruska, the ACLU’s political director. “It just doesn’t benefit society for people to continue to face collateral consequences because of a record when the goal really should be successful reentry.”
A 2018 study by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, for example, found that 27 percent of formerly incarcerated people were unemployed, due in large part to the stigma surrounding past convictions. And many studies show that employment can significantly reduce the likelihood of recidivism.
Margaret Love served as the U.S. Pardon Attorney from 1990 to 1997 and now runs the Collateral Consequence Resource Center, which helps maintain a clearinghouse for information about expungement laws in each state.
She said it’s encouraging to see so many states, including New Hampshire, take steps to help previously incarcerated people return to their communities as productive members. But many of those states also seem to be flailing about for solutions without any clear idea of the best way to achieve their goals.
“We have to have some national leadership. It is crazy that each state is trying to handle this problem without knowing what’s going on anywhere else,” Love said. “We’ve got to develop policies to help states like New Hampshire whose laws are so out of step. I would bet that the New Hampshire Legislature hasn’t a clue that other states don’t do it this way.”