Research Study Reveals Problems with RI Expungement Policies

In light of public discussion about changes in the rules on expungement, a 2000 Brown University Taubman Center for Public Policy study undertaken by Professor Ross Cheit looked at expungement policy between 1993 and 1998. As the following information demonstrates, his study revealed a number of serious problems with how past expungements have been handled.

For those who are interested in how the process works, expunged records are withdrawn from public access, allowing courts to give deserving people a chance to rebuild their lives without the stigma of a criminal conviction. Almost every state allows expungement of records for juvenile convictions and for cases where an adult defendant was acquitted. Only 12 states - Rhode Island among them - allow expungement of adult felony convictions, but convictions in certain cases may not legally be expunged:

Beyond those legal standards, judges exercise wide discretion in deciding whether to allow expungement. Judges need only be satisfied that the petitioner is rehabilitated and has demonstrated "good moral character" and that expungement is "consistent with the public interest."

Rhode Island's law is one of the most liberal in the nation, and there have been repeated efforts in the General Assembly to make expungements even easier to obtain. Expungements of cases originally charged as felonies are becoming more frequent, increasing six-fold during the 1990s (from 15 in 1990 to 99 in 1998). At the same time, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has overturned some high-profile expungements because they had been granted in violation of the statute.

Are expungements practiced in accordance with the law? Do they serve the public's interest? "The question is not whether felony cases are being expunged in violation of the statute," the researchers wrote in their report, "but how many cases, what types of cases, and under what circumstances." How, exactly, are expungements "consistent with the public interest?"

To answer those questions, researchers assembled a database of 145 convictions in cases originally charged as felonies which were expunged between 1993 and 1998. They used electronic court records and newspaper archives to determine as much as they could about the disposition of those cases. Since the expunged cases have been removed from the public record, there is no way to be absolutely certain that a given individual had specific charges expunged. Despite incomplete data, the study did identify a set of cases which were expunged in violation of the statute.

In their study, the researchers identified 46 expunged felony cases which were originally charged as crimes of violence. Of those 46, they determined the final disposition of 25:

Although Rhode Island law clearly dates the statutory time limit from completion of the sentence, some judges, apparently in good faith, used a more lenient date of conviction standard. Others did not consider the time limits mandatory. The Rhode Island Supreme Court settled the issue in State v. Alejo (1999), reaffirming that time limits are mandatory and must date from the completion of the sentence. Because there had been some confusion during the years covered by their study, the Taubman researchers used the more conservative date-of-conviction standard.

Because only first offenders are eligible for expungement, offenders with prior convictions may not have their records expunged. The law also denies expungement of felony convictions to persons who have been arrested for a felony in the preceding 10 years (or, in the case of a misdemeanor conviction, a misdemeanor arrest in the preceding five years). Researchers were able to ascertain the defendant's name and date of birth in 79 of the 145 cases under consideration and so were able to check for other criminal records.

Finally, the study examined the discretionary decision to expunge. After examining the 843 motions to expunge issued between 1993 and 1998, researchers determined that eligible petitioners failed to receive expungement in only five instances. In three of those instances the petitioners either withdrew the motions or did not pursue them; judges denied motions only twice to eligible petitioners.

The report makes a number of conclusions and recommendations:

If you would like further information on this study, the full report "Public Courts, Private Records" is available free and online at (under Research Program).