Survivors Deserve a Clean Slate
By Sasha Hulsey, Kshitiz Karki, Olivia Reyes, and Alyssa Scott | January 12, 2021
What if you were unable to access housing or find a job with a livable wage? And you couldn’t access public benefits that might be able to help, you lost your parenting rights, and were not able to exercise your right to vote? This is often the reality individuals with a criminal record face in our society simply because they cannot remove the stigmatizing label of “criminal.”
One in three adults in the United States has a criminal record. We know that an individual’s criminal record often determines future interactions with the criminal justice system and can easily become cyclical. For survivors of sexual exploitation, this cycle also perpetuates racial and gender inequalities. Unfortunately, for survivors of exploitation, criminal expungement—the sealing of criminal records after time served—is too often out of reach.
For survivors of exploitation, criminal expungement—the sealing of criminal records after time served—is too often out of reach.
We need comprehensive criminal justice reform to address the gender and racial inequalities inherent in how the system treats survivors of sexual exploitation and open up criminal expungement to more Minnesotans.
A System That Traps Survivors
The system is stacked against the re-entry of certain groups with criminal records, especially against individuals who are victims of sexual exploitation and who have prostitution and prostitution-related convictions. Research shows that many people who are arrested for prostitution are also victims of exploitation and trafficking. But being arrested and charged for crimes that arise from the circumstances of victimization — including petty theft, check fraud, or drug possession — can be life-changing. Living with a criminal record exacerbates feelings of trauma, stigmatization, and shame. The consequences persist over time, impeding victims’ ability to thrive in concrete, measurable ways.
The risks of sexual exploitation increase depending on who you are. In the 2017 Minnesota Human Trafficking Report from the Department of Public Safety, law enforcement agencies identified 401 sex trafficking victims and service providers identified 2,124 sex trafficking victims. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, women (especially women of color) and LGBTQ+ people are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Other risk factors include, age, socioeconomic status, homelessness, immigrant status, addiction, and ability. Of the victims identified by service providers, 56% were women, 25% were girls under 18, 33% were Black, 28% were white, and 23% were American Indian.
Our criminal justice system demands rehabilitation but does not support individuals as they try to re-enter society after a criminal conviction. As of 2019, 10 states, including Minnesota, do not have a specific criminal relief statute for adult survivors of human trafficking. Without this legal remedy, survivors navigate the world with a harmful criminal record and may experience exploitation as the only source of security. The current system keeps people in poverty or engaging in other criminal activity as a means to survive.
Real Reform Requires Participatory Policymaking
One legal remedy available in Minnesota is criminal expungement. When it works properly, expungement can disrupt the cycle of crime, stigma, poverty, and despair by opening up access to employment, housing, and other rights. But in reality, it’s not working: the cost, time — including an in-person hearing — and intricacy of the process make expungement something many Minnesotans can only dream of. This is a miscarriage of justice.
When it works properly, expungement can disrupt the cycle of crime, stigma, poverty, and despair by opening up access to employment, housing, and other rights. But in reality, it’s not working
Our research into criminal expungement in Minnesota points to the need for criminal justice policy and police reform to be shaped by historically marginalized communities and those most directly affected by current policies. Participatory research has been shown to create a respectful and humane process for sex trafficking victims, and by extension other groups that have been traumatized and marginalized.
Policymaking can benefit in many ways from measures like advisory boards and broader stakeholder involvement, including participant empowerment, increased quality of results, and meaningful systems change. In the context of expungement, creating policy with the input of individuals with criminal records will lead to a more nuanced understanding of barriers and more impactful reform, ultimately helping more people.
Four Ways to Make Expungement Work in Minnesota
After two special sessions of the Minnesota Legislature following the murder of George Floyd and subsequent uprisings, both of which focused on police brutality, a police reform bill was passed that unfortunately does not go far enough to address structural racism in the criminal justice system.
We propose several expungement recommendations for Minnesota legislators based on feedback from individuals who are victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking, as well as more than 35 interviews with professionals working in and around the criminal justice system.
Change policy design processes.
Policy should be, first and foremost, informed by those most affected. Criminal justice and police reform impact all community members, so adopt a participatory policymaking framework at the state legislature.
Standardize the expungement process at the state level.
Wide variations in the expungement process across Minnesota counties and cities make it difficult for individuals who need to file for expungement in several counties. Many counties across the state do not even hear expungement cases.
Shorten the time requirements to access expungement.
Before filing an expungement petition, individuals must wait between two and five years, depending on the type of conviction, without committing any other offenses (including traffic violations).
Support the “Clean Slate Act.”
This bill would allow automatic expungements for certain convictions in Minnesota. Individuals would not have to file expungement petitions or navigate the complicated process, but rather be led through prosecutorial agreements. A provision in the bill would also benefit individuals who have been sexually exploited.
As things stand today, the process for obtaining criminal expungement in Minnesota is an obstacle course. It is in many ways designed to make the re-entry of individuals with criminal records impossible, thus creating a cycle that forces individuals into generational poverty or crime as a way to survive. To break this cycle, legislators need to involve the community and remove barriers to put criminal expungement within reach for those who need it most.
Sasha Hulsey, Kshitiz Karki, Olivia Reyes, and Alyssa Scott are 2020 graduates of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Learn more about their work on reimagining expungement here.
Photo credit: iStock.com/Boonyachoat