The Supreme Judicial Court today set out new rules by which criminal defendants whose cases are dismissed or terminated can have their records sealed - with the goal of making it easier to do so if they can prove they're unable to get a job or housing because of those records.
The state's highest court issued the new guidelines in reaction to a Dorchester man's attempt to have evidence of his OUI arrest sealed after officials declined to continue the case against him. He said he was turned down by some 300 potential employers because of the case.
The court said recent research and efforts by the state Legislature both point to employment as a key factor in reducing recidivism rates - and to the recognition that a criminal record can make that difficult to achieve.
At the same time, the court said, it has to balance a desire to help people get and hold jobs with the public's right to access court records - a right that, in Massachusetts, pre-dates both the state and US constitutions.
The court concluded that letting defendants in a narrow set of circumstances - those whose cases were not brought forward or dismissed and who could show serious hardship if the records were not sealed - would not infringe on the constitutional right of the public to attend court sessions. It noted some court records - for example, in juvenile court - were already blocked from public view.
Even still, the court set out six steps by which judges should consider requests to seal records, including:
Judges evaluating a petition for sealing must recognize the interests of the defendant and of the Commonwealth in keeping the information private. These interests include the compelling governmental interests in reducing recidivism, facilitating reintegration, and ensuring self-sufficiency by promoting employment and housing opportunities for former criminal defendants. Where there is persuasive evidence that employers and housing authorities consider criminal history in making decisions, there is now a fully articulated governmental interest in shielding criminal history information from these decision makers where so doing would not cause adverse consequences to the community at large.
At a minimum, judges should evaluate the particular disadvantages identified by the defendant arising from the availability of the criminal record; evidence of rehabilitation suggesting that the defendant could overcome these disadvantages if the record were sealed; any other evidence that sealing would alleviate the identified disadvantages; relevant circumstances of the defendant at the time of the offense that suggest a likelihood of recidivism or of success; the passage of time since the offense and since the dismissal or nolle prosequi; and the nature of and reasons for the particular disposition.