Governor’s veto shows we can’t settle for piecemeal changes to Missouri expungement process

August 10, 2023 5:55 am

The bipartisan support behind Senate Bill 189 demonstrates that Missouri legislators understand that our criminal justice system needs broad reforms (Getty Images).

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s recent veto of an an omnibus criminal justice bill with bipartisan support was a disappointing setback.

In the governor’s statement, he provided his reasoning behind the veto, citing proposed changes to the state’s petition-based expungement system that he believed would have an unintended and/or unclear impact on determining who qualifies to have their records sealed.

Missouri’s expungement system is in need of a major overhaul, but Parson’s veto demonstrates the challenges in pursuing piecemeal changes to the complicated petition-based system. Despite the veto, Parson did state that he is “supportive of efforts to give individuals a second chance.” The bipartisan support behind the legislation demonstrates that Missouri lawmakers understand that our criminal justice system needs broad reforms, following recent polling indicating that 70 percent of Missouri voters believe that our criminal justice system needs improvements.

There is a better alternative to the piecemeal changes to the expungement process proposed and ultimately rejected by the governor: Clean Slate legislation.

Bills introduced last session by Republican Reps. Phil Christofanelli of St. Charles and Rep. Justin Hicks of Lake St. Louis), along with Sen. Curtis Trent, R-Springfield, would have automated the expungement process without changing who qualifies for relief. The proposal would simply take the offenses that already qualify for expungement under Missouri law and create a tech-based solution to seal those records after the existing waiting period (one year for misdemeanors and three years for eligible, nonviolent felonies) has passed.

This policy change would help provide better pathways to employment, education and safe housing for an estimated 500,000 Missouri residents who have a criminal record that is eligible for expungement.

In 2012, Missouri began to recognize the consequences that criminal records were having on individuals and communities and implemented an expungement process that would allow records to be sealed from public view, while remaining accessible to law enforcement.

Unfortunately, after a decade’s worth of implementation, we have come to understand that the current process is cumbersome, complicated and costly. It has proved inaccessible for those most in need of record-sealing relief: only 1% of eligible records have been sealed in Missouri to date.

It is difficult to understate the impact of a criminal record in 2023.

With advances in web-crawling technology, the use of background checks has become commonplace: Nearly 9 in 10 employers use background checks in hiring; an estimated 4 in 5 landlords use background checks on prospective tenants; and more than 3 in 5 colleges and universities use background checks in admissions.

An applicant with a criminal record is 50% to 63% less likely to get a callback or job offer than an identical applicant without a record. In turn, between 60% and 75% of formerly incarcerated individuals remain unemployed one year after their release, making it nearly impossible for them to support themselves and their families.

As a result, previously incarcerated people are 10 times more likely than the general-public to end up homeless. With 1.8 million adults with a criminal record in Missouri, this has resulted in staggering poverty, with ripple effects extending beyond the individual and impacting families, communities and our society as a whole. 

Automating the expungement process makes it accessible to all Missourians, regardless of whether they have the knowledge, time and resources to navigate a complicated, costly system over many months or even years. At a moment when two-thirds of Missouri voters believe that the criminal justice system in Missouri is really a two-tiered justice system in which those with money or connections are treated differently than others, this policy levels the playing field and ensures that everyone who has earned it has an equal opportunity for a second chance.

However, expungements would remain unavailable to those who have committed violent or sexual offenses, and individuals would still have to meet a number of standards to qualify. Individuals must serve their full sentence, pay any restitution in full and remain crime-free for several years. The opportunities that Clean Slate provides — making it easier to get a job, find stable housing and go back to school — make it even less likely that a person will commit another crime, aiding all of our efforts to create safer communities. 

Missouri lawmakers agreed that people deserve second chances when they created our existing expungement laws, but they didn’t anticipate the plethora of challenges we’ve seen with the implementation of the current policy.

Continuing to pursue changes to the petition-based system as proposed in the legislation vetoed by the governor will not make a significant impact on the number of individuals who can access expungements.

Rather than seeking incremental changes to a flawed system, it is time for Missouri to join Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and seven other states in passing Clean Slate legislation. Missourians should not have to wait any longer for record sealing relief, which is why advocates will continue to work towards the passage of a Clean Slate bill in the 2024 legislative session.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Gwen Smith
Gwen Smith

Gwen Smith is a St. Louis native who joined Empower Missouri in June 2022 as the Criminal Justice Policy Manager. Over the past 8 years, she has worked in various capacities with justice-involved community members. Gwen has managed direct service and reentry housing programs, provided direct support to individuals incarcerated in jail and prison, and led local efforts to coordinate reentry support services. She has a BS in criminology and criminal justice from UMSL and an MSW from Washington University.