Testimony on Legislation to Expunge Criminal Records in DC

Testimony on Legislation to Expunge Criminal Records in DC

Testimony before DC Council Judiciary & Public Safety Committee

April 8, 2021

B24-0063 - Second Chance Amendment Act of 2021


Rabbi Charles Feinberg

Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning regarding B24-0063, “Second Chance Amendment Act of 2021,” and B24-0110, “Criminal Record Expungement Amendment Act of 2021.”

My name is Rabbi Charles Feinberg. I am the executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights which represents people of faith who educate and advocate in Maryland, DC and Virginia for corrections systems that avoid unnecessarily punitive practices such as solitary confinement and that instead focus on rehabilitation and successful reentry.

I commend the Council for taking up legislation that will expand the number and kinds of records that can be sealed. I support amending Chapter 8 of Title 16 to increase the number of eligible convictions that may be sealed, to reduce the number of years a resident must remain off papered to seal an eligible conviction, to simplify and shorten the process that a resident must undertake to seal a charge that does not end in a conviction.

I also support expanding the definition of an eligible felony and to make all misdemeanors eligible for sealing. Felonies are expanded to (A) Failure to appear (§ 23-1327); 31 “(B) First or second degree theft (§ 22-3211); and 32 “(C) Felony possession (§ 48-904.01(a)

However, I am disappointed that this legislation does not go far enough.  This legislation does not address granting eligibility for expunging serious felonies. Nor does it include simplified waiting period and simplified burdens of proof.  Furthermore, the legislation should mandate clearer rules on how sealed records may be accessed and used. It should also give clearer guidance to our courts to decide motions as well as limiting the time for a court to decide a motion to seal.  Finally, the legislation should make the instructions on how to file simple and easy to read. People should be able file without hiring an attorney.

The basic question that we all have to address is how many times and how long do we punish someone who was convicted of a crime?  Once convicted of a felony, a DC resident becomes incarcerated in the Bureau of Prisons. He or she spends a number of years there. While there they do not receive the educational, psychological, and medical services they need to help them make different decisions for themselves. Many have served lengthy sentences and they return to a city that has dramatically changed since they lived here. Many are not prepared to re-enter.  Many do not have homes to return to.  

Then they return to the District and the punishment does not end. Do we provide housing for those returning from prison? No, we really don’t. Do the landlords want them? No, they don’t.  Here is another barrier that is so difficult to overcome: finding a decent and affordable place to live in. Many then have to jump from one couch in one house to another and too often end up living on the street.

The same barriers apply to those seeking employment. Since our incarceration system does not provide coherent and meaningful educational programs, too many leave prison without the knowledge and skills needed to survive in a modern economy.  

What do we do?  We haggle over how long the records of those returning from prison should be open and when they can be sealed.  We put up one barrier after another that returning citizens have to navigate and somehow bypass in order to live and prosper.  The overwhelming percentage of those affected are black and brown people. 

This city desperately needs political leadership that first and foremost will teach us not to fear people returning from prison.  The fear of returning citizens blinds us from seeing their humanity. The fear of returning citizens causes us to continue punishing them for years after they have completed their time in prison. The fear of returning citizens prevents us from providing the services they need in order to succeed and live at peace with themselves and with others. 

The legislation is a step forward. But it is an insufficient step forward. We need bolder steps and more ambitious programs for those returning.  I encourage you to lead and not be afraid.