The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press applauds the decision of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Effective Criminal Sanctions to withdraw its proposed resolutions, which sought to radically limit public access to criminal justice system records.
“We appreciate that the commission heard our concerns and took a second look at the dire effect these recommendations would have had on transparency in government,” Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish said.
The commission’s stated goal was to eliminate the unfair predisposition of some employers and landlords to reject people with arrest records or convictions without regard to the actual risk any one individual may pose.
“Hiding criminal justice system records is simply not the way to tackle this problem,” Dalglish said. “If you want to address the issue then do it as openly as possible, not cloaked in the secrecy of sealing orders and automatic expungement.”
The commission’s recommendations had urged federal, state and local governments to immediately “limit access” to records of closed criminal cases without convictions and to everyone except law enforcement agencies. The resolutions also pushed for closing access to criminal conviction records “after the passage of a specified period of law-abiding conduct.”
These measures, if adopted by government and later turned into law, would have dramatically impeded the press’s ability to oversee the criminal justice system. For example, police and prosecutors would have had exclusive access to cases that did not result in convictions, including in cases of prosecutor or police misconduct.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was joined in opposing the commission’s proposals by The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, Criminal Justice Journalists, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Associated Press Managing Editors, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the National Conference of Editorial Writers, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the National Newspaper Association, the National Press Club, the Radio Television News Directors Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
In addition to media groups’ concerns with the resolutions, the ABA’s Committee on Consumer Financial Services of the Section of Business Law, business groups like the United States Chamber of Commerce, and database companies like LexisNexis and ChoicePoint publicly criticized the recommendations’ attempts to limit records access.