Debt to Society

How long must someone be punished for a criminal act? When is that person’s debt to society ever forgiven?

In Texas, it’s a lifetime debt.

Convictions for criminal acts (from a class B possession of marijuana to murder) will always remain a part of a person’s criminal record. Criminal records are available online and forever. This essentially means that it will forever be held against that person.

The only time records are deleted is through expunction. To qualify for an expunction, the State must have dismissed your case (without any other convictions related to that criminal episode) or a judge or jury must have found you not guilty after a trial. Outside of that, it will always remain on your record. If you qualify for an expunction, you should seek one as soon as possible! Expunction is a civil process requesting records be deleted. There are filing fees associated with most expunctions, but it is well worth the expense to have your record cleaned up. All too often we see law enforcement or prosecutors hold a prior arrest (even without a conviction) against someone.

In some cases, where a person receives deferred adjudication, the judge may grant an order making the record non-public. This means law enforcement and government agencies will still see your record, but the general public may not. Not all offenses qualify and some require waiting periods before you can request non-public disclosure.

This is an ever changing area of law. Just this year, we saw the legislature trying to clarify and broaden the process yet several of the bills which the legislature passed were vetoed by the governor. However, the non-disclosure statute was amended to say in certain non-violent misdemeanor cases, the court shall grant the order of non-disclosure. This minor change indicates that judges must grant the non-disclosure where all requirements are met. The former law stated the court “may” grant the non-disclosure in the interest of justice. In another minor change, the legislature created the possibility that some minor first offender probation convictions will be treated similar to deferred adjudication and possibly made non-public.

Compare Texas with other states, and you can see that we have done little to help those who have paid their debt to society move forward. For example, Utah has instituted a program for low-level non-violent homeless people to clear their records of minor convictions which keep them homeless. With various petty offenses like camping in public and public intoxication, it is rather difficult for these folks to gain employment or housing. Instead of perpetuating the homeless cycle, Utah has taken steps to reduce homelessness by giving these folks a fresh start.

Florida maintains a first offender program that allows first time non-violent felony offenders a chance at diversion. If supervision is successfully completed and rehabilitation shown, the offender can have his case dismissed and expunged. While the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will consider a request for pre-trial intervention (much like what Florida does as a course of action across the board), it is extremely rare that such a request will be granted.

And we wonder why we have high incarceration rates and recidivism rates. Branded for life, we give non-violent first offenders little incentive to stay clean and out of trouble. Once branded with a criminal record, they will have difficulty obtaining employment and even renting apartments.

It’s time to re-think our lifetime debt to society.

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