AUGUSTA — A bill touted as a “second chance” for young people convicted of minor crimes will need a little work if it’s to become law.
LD 549, authored by Rep. Joan Welsh, D-Rockport, would allow people ages 18 to 20 to request one conviction of a misdemeanor crime be sealed from the public record.
"I think the intent of this bill is to fix the problem of young people who are trying to do well in their lives, who made a mistake when they were young that is then preventing them from moving forward with their futures," Welsh said.
The measure, according to Welsh, would help those who have made mistakes that are haunting them as they seek employment or access to higher eduction.
While Welsh's bill would apply to Class D and E convictions, she said Wednesday she would be open to amendments that would prohibit those convicted of sex crimes or other violent crimes from being allowed to seal off those records.
The measure could face an uphill battle, however, as several spoke against the bill, pointing out that the Maine Constitution reserves to the governor the right to expunge crimes or to pardon individuals.
Allowing some records to be sealed from the public record, however, would not be unconstitutional.
Others, including Geoffrey Rushlau, the district attorney for Knox, Waldo, Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties, speaking on behalf of the Maine Prosecutors' Association, said the measure was not only unconstitutional but unneeded.
Rushlau said there were other avenues in Maine's court system that allowed people who made a single bad mistake to avoid a conviction, including a deferred disposition, a process through which a suspect makes a plea but the charges can be dismissed if they do not have any new encounters with the law or break any other laws over a period of time.
He noted that juvenile records, for those under the age of 18, were already sealed from the public in Maine.
Some Class D crimes, including some sex offenses and assaults, are considered misdemeanors under Maine law. Rushlau said attempted crimes were often charged at one level lower than a felony. Attempted sexual assault could be charged as a Class D crime, he said. He also pointed out that cruelty to animals is a Class D crime and a conviction for that is often a precursor to violent crimes against people.
Rushlau said he understood the situation in which a person with a single theft conviction from shoplifting might seek to have that record sealed so they could more easily gain employment, but as a prosecutor he regularly faces the issue of "collateral consequences."
"If we really do get concerned about all these collateral consequences, I'm afraid to say that virtually nobody should be convicted of a minor crime," Rushlau said. "We might just as well throw our criminal code out and say we will focus only on the felonies."
One amendment to the bill would allow a person of any age to ask to have their record sealed, provided they were convicted of a crime when they were 18-20. The amendment offered by Rep. Wayne Mitchell, D-Penobscot Nation, would require at least 10 years of good behavior and community service.
Mitchell said his intent was that only one conviction would be allowed to be sealed. A person couldn't have multiple convictions removed from the public record.
"They've done their mea culpa; they are active in the community, have done community service and are completely different people from the moment when the incident happened," Mitchell said. "I'm envisioning someone who realized their own mistakes."
Lawmakers will likely schedule a work session on the measure in the weeks ahead to work out details.