Civil Rights Groups Seek Clarification of Expungement Statute

Racial Justice

December 23, 2021

Today, Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) filed a brief as amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the Massachusetts Appeals Court, urging the Court to apply the Commonwealth’s expungement law broadly, in order to remediate long-standing disparities that pervade the criminal justice system.

The brief was filed on behalf of Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, Boston Society of Vulcans, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), Massachusetts Employment Lawyers Association (MELA), Rights Behind Bars, Justice at Work, and Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO).

The case, which concerns the collateral consequences that exist for individuals with a criminal record, is one of the first to apply the expungement provisions of the Massachusetts Legislature’s 2018 landmark criminal justice reform measure. The brief details how the law was created to correct the harm to communities of color by the criminal justice system. It also argues that the Court should provide an interpretation of the legal standard — “best interests of justice” — that avoids an unjust result for expungement petitioners and fully considers the collateral consequences of a criminal record.

“Expungement is far more than asking the Court to eliminate a criminal record. It dramatically impacts someone’s livelihood, their wellbeing, the opportunity to move forward and succeed,” said Sara L. Wilson, Civil Rights Fellow at Lawyers for Civil Rights.

The continuous punishment of those who have been caught up in the criminal justice system — often decades after the fact and sometimes even when there has been no conviction, or the behavior at issue is no longer criminalized — touches every aspect of a person’s life and fundamentally hinders their ability to truly rejoin their community. Due to over-policing in communities of color, as well as conscious and unconscious bias throughout the criminal justice system, Massachusetts significantly outpaces the national average of imprisoning people of color and was ranked number one in the U.S. for the highest disparities for Black and Latinx individuals. Disproportionate involvement in the criminal justice system, due to a complex array of factors, ultimately results in people of color shouldering collateral consequences more often compared to their white counterparts. The Legislature enacted the statute at issue to correct these racialized disparities by explicitly granting the Court the authority to expunge criminal records. 

The case, Commonwealth v. D.M.T. (No. 2021-P-0540), is pending in the Massachusetts Appeals Court. The petitioner is represented pro bono by Anderson & Kreiger LLP

The amicus brief is attached.