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How a Court Ruled on Expunging Convictions for the Rehabilitated

Museum Of London Previews The Met Crime Museum Uncovered ExhibitionMuseum Of London Previews The Met Crime Museum Uncovered Exhibition
A firearm and criminal record belonging to Ronnie Kray displayed at the "Met Crime Museum Uncovered" exhibition in London, England. Ben Pruchnie — Getty Images

Federal judges cannot expunge convictions from people’s criminal records even when it prevents those who have been rehabilitated from getting jobs, and Congress should consider granting the judiciary that power, a U.S. appeals court ruled on Thursday.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York overturned a May 2015 ruling that expunged the records of a 2001 conviction of a woman who spent years struggling to hold down jobs because of it.

Circuit Judge Raymond Lohier called the situation “unfortunate” for the woman, known in court records as Jane Doe, and noted Congress has occasionally let judges give one-time criminal defendants a clean bill of health.

“It might consider doing so again for certain offenders who, like Doe, want and deserve to have their criminal convictions expunged after a period of successful rehabilitation,” he wrote.

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The decision reversed a ruling by former U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn. It came amid growing attention to ensuring that people with criminal records are treated fairly when seeking employment and trying to rebuild their lives.

Noam Biale, Doe’s lawyer, called the decision “especially unfortunate, given the broad consensus that collateral consequences of criminal convictions are unduly harsh, do not enhance public safety, and keep good people like Jane Doe out of the workforce.”

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U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in an April speech, said criminal defendants who have served their punishments too often “continue to be punished for past mistakes” through hurdles to secure student loans, driver’s licenses and housing.

The Justice Department, which opposed expunging Doe’s record, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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Jane Doe was a single mother and home health aide who in 1997 was a passenger in a staged car accident in an automobile insurance fraud scheme.

A federal jury in Brooklyn convicted her in 2001, and she was sentenced the next year to five years of probation and 10 months of home detention.

In subsequent years, Doe had trouble maintaining employment in the health care field because of the conviction. After landing some jobs, she was fired after employers conducted background checks, according to court papers.

Gleeson ordered her conviction expunged, saying the public’s interest in her contributing to society outweighed its interest in her conviction being a matter of public record.

“I sentenced her to five years of probation supervision, not to a lifetime of unemployment,” he wrote.