Arizona House committee advances proposal to seal criminal records with court’s OK
A state House of Representatives committee advanced a proposal on Wednesday that would allow people convicted of a crime an opportunity to have criminal records sealed by state courts, which advocates said would provide a second opportunity for people who have paid their debt to society.
House Bill 2320, which is sponsored by Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, advanced on a 9-0 vote by the House Criminal Justice Reform Committee.
The bill would allow people to ask a court to seal their records of being charged and convicted at least two years after being sentenced.
“I fully admit that not everybody is going to be on board,” Toma said. “I think as a moral matter, for me personally, I believe in second chances and that I believe the state, once someone has paid their dues, should grant those second chances.”
The proposal was one of a series of proposals the committee considered, including a bill that would require Arizona law-enforcement departments to report all of their use-of-force cases so the state can create a statewide database.
This proposal, sponsored by Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, also advanced on a 9-0 vote.
Toma’s proposal also would allow people to say in job or housing applications that they have never been arrested or convicted of a crime.
The bill would require prosecutors and victims to be notified if the people convicted have applied to have their records sealed. The application would have to be approved by the court. If people commit another crime after their records have been sealed, law-enforcement officers and prosecutors would have access to the sealed documents, according to the bill.
Some of the people who spoke in favor of the court-sealing proposal during the committee meeting had been convicted and served time in prison. They said that as a result of having a criminal record being public they have struggled to find housing or jobs even though they have not committed any other crime.
Kara Williams, an organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona who has previously been incarcerated, said the proposal would help people find housing.
Williams said that after her divorce she began to use drugs, and it led her to a path of crime to feed her addiction. After she was released from prison in 2018, she said she had a hard time finding an apartment where it was safe for her and her three children. She settled for a small place but eventually bought a house. She said she was able to do this because her family supported her.
“I should not have to worry in twenty years if I needed to go rent a place again that I’m going to be denied because of my past felonies,” she said. “I should be afforded the opportunity to wipe the slate clean after a reasonable amount of time. Please, just think about the people who do not have the opportunities that I had.”
Daniel Arellano, a First Amendment lawyer who represents The Arizona Republic, raised concerns about the proposal. He said he supports the intention of the bill — which is to allow people who have served their time to continue living a dignified life after doing their time.
He said that if a court seals records, especially if the person is of public interest, it would essentially block information that is considered public record.
He said some states have expungement laws, which remove criminal records from public view in many cases. But as Toma’s proposal stands, Arellano said, the general public, including reporters, would not have access to a person’s criminal record if they needed to investigate a person who may be of public concern.
“There is a distinction between sealing and expungement, and we take no issue whatsoever with expungement,” he said.