Access Alert: ABA Pushing For Sealed Criminal Records

An American Bar Association committee is recommending that the Bar endorse a severe limitation on public access to criminal records. The ABA’s House of Delegates is scheduled to take the issue up in early February.

The proposed restriction reads: “Public access to criminal records should in general be limited, in light of the government’s interest in encouraging successful offender reentry and reintegration, people should be able to challenge the accuracy of their records, and only law enforcement agencies should have access to records of closed criminal cases that did not result in a conviction.”

The restriction is included in Part IV of the recommendations to the House of Delegates from the ABA’s Commission on Effective Criminal Sanctions. The intent, according to the panel, is to aid former convicts in re-entering society. The commissions suggests the change would help those individuals get jobs because records of closed cases that didn’t result in a conviction would no longer be publicly available.

Several organizations are actively opposing the proposal, including Criminal Justice Journalists and the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government. In a joint letter to the ABA, the groups wrote:

“We believe the recommendation that “only law enforcement agencies have access to records of closed criminal cases that did not result in a conviction” is contrary to the essential notion of an open criminal court system and could lead, directly and indirectly, to the closure of vast amounts of incident and pre-trial information that is now both open and vital to the public.

“The commission states that in formulating its proposal, it sought to “balance the public’s reasonable right to know” against the government’s interest in offender re-entry. We see little evidence that the commission’s proposal would advance the public’s right to know what its law enforcement agencies are doing with respect to arrests.

“Closing these records could have the effect of shielding those inside the criminal justice system who want to avoid being held accountable for actions they take on behalf of the public.”

If you or your organization also have concerns about this proposal, you can send a letter to:

Laurel G. Bellows
Chair, House of Delegates
American Bar Association
321 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60610