When Steffan Richardson was released from prison after serving a year-long sentence, he felt like he was starting from scratch.
“I had nothing,” Richardson, who is now the director of business development for Denver-based nonprofit Tribe Recovery Homes, told lawmakers on Tuesday. “I struggled to find stable housing and a good job like I once had. And all the issues I was facing were directly in regards to my criminal record.”
A person’s criminal record often bars them from housing and employment opportunities long after they have completed their sentence for a crime. A bill at the state Legislature aims to allow more people to seal their criminal records for a wide array of offenses.
House Bill 21-1214, which passed its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday, makes several updates to the process of sealing criminal records, creates an automatic process to seal eligible drug convictions, and retroactively allows adults and juveniles to petition for relief from collateral consequences to improve their chances for success after incarceration.
“This bill is about second chances” said state Rep. Mike Weissman in the House Judiciary Committee on April 20. “1.8 million people in our state have some kind of criminal record. That’s over a third of all adults. I think we should find that pretty striking.”
The bill, which passed on a 7-4 vote along party lines, is being sponsored by Weissman and Sens. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat, and Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat. The bill heads next to the House Finance Committee.
The only people to testify against the bill during its first hearing were members of the media, who worry that the concealment of criminal records will inhibit journalistic pursuits and shield the truth from public view. Those that testified against the legislation included members from the Colorado Press Association, COLab, The Denver Post, the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, and KMGH-TV Denver7 News.
State Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, thanked the bill sponsors for bringing the bill forward and added that she felt patronized by those in opposition to the bill who want access to criminal records in order to bring attention to injustice.
“A lot of people say the system is broken when we see these consequences. For me, I’m like ‘The system isn’t broken, it’s doing what it’s designed to do,” Bacon said. “This (bill) is a way to address actual root causes. This is a root cause to unemployment rates, reoffending, to mass incarceration, to being unhoused.”
“If it is our job to create policy and we believe in curtailing unemployment and housing (issues) so that this can be the land of the free for opportunities, then we need to intervene on a system that was created to keep people from pursuing that,” she added.
Automatic sealing process
For arrests without a conviction on or after Jan. 1, 2022, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation would automatically seal an arrest record after a year has passed without a criminal charge being filed, according to the bill.
For records of arrests before Jan. 1, 2022, CBI will seal arrest records for felony offenses after three years if no charges were filed and for misdemeanors, traffic and petty offenses or municipal violations after 18 months. If charges are ultimately filed, the records will be unsealed.
Arrest records for felony offenses with a statute of limitations greater than three years are not eligible for sealing under the legislation, and treatment providers for sex offenders and domestic abusers would have access to sealed arrest records.
Those who spoke in support of the bill talked about the additional barrier that criminal records create long after someone has done their time and are trying to reenter society.
“Imagine if everyone knew your worst mistake,” Howie Close, a pastor at the Woodland Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, told lawmakers during the committee hearing on Tuesday. “The worst mistake you ever made in your whole life, and you had to walk around and carry that as a label.”
“This bill will add compassion to our system and effectively make our justice system more just for people who have paid their debt and should be able to have their full freedom restored to them, and no longer have to live like a second class citizen or less than human,” Close added.
In order to request a record sealing, a person must not have been convicted of a criminal offense since the date of the final disposition of all criminal proceedings against them. Sealing also cannot occur if the petitioner owes restitution, fines, court costs, late fees, or other fees, according to the bill.
The bill would allow the state public defender and the office of alternate defense counsel to create a fund using gifts, grants and donations from private or public sources to provide legal support for people going through record sealing proceedings. It would also require the state court administrator to create a website where people can go to determine whether their record has been sealed and how to obtain a copy of the order.
People with multiple convictions could petition to get their records sealed
If passed, the bill would allow a person with multiple conviction records to petition to seal their records as long as the crime is not a Victim’s Rights Act crime. State Rep. Terri Carver, a Colorado Springs Republican, introduced an amendment during the bill’s first hearing to try and remove the aspect of the bill that would conceal multiple convictions, but the measure failed.
A person who receives a complete and unconditional pardon from the state can also file a motion to seal their record. The district attorney must ultimately decide whether to object to the motion and, if there is an objection, the court must set a hearing to decide if the record should be sealed.
The bill creates a process to automatically seal drug convictions by requiring the State Court Administrator to compile a list of individuals with drug convictions who are eligible for having their criminal records sealed if seven years have passed since the disposition of a petty offense or misdemeanor case, or 10 years has passed for a felony. The administrator would compile an initial list by Feb. 1, 2024, according to the bill.
The list will then be evaluated or amended by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation within the Department of Public Safety before being forwarded to the relevant district attorneys’ offices for records to be sealed by July 1, 2024.