Redeeming Redemption: What Cost?
Megan Roques (@meganroques)
The purpose of terrorism research is to understand the roots of terrorism, how to suppress these acts or minimize their impact in a large-scale. Thanks to the work of many individuals in the realm of academia, we have made great progress in the field. However, one source of inhibition from further process is the access of information. The discussion of the cost of electronic court records and how it is an infringement in citizen’s rights has been talked about by Morgan and you can read it here. Additionally, I have delved into the difficulty of tracking down state records and how it has less to do with privacy and more to benefit the capitalism market (found here).
Let’s picture a different scenario: you are scrolling through your favorite social media platform (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and you come across a hate crime that occurred in your state. The video/article about it goes viral: all over your timeline, on your local news channels, every time you open your phone, there it is. However, just like everything on social media, something else becomes trending in a matter of days, and it is forgotten by the masses. But you are different, an informed citizen, and decide to follow up on the news to make sure justice was served. Your state has an amazing court record retrieval system and you have the perpetrator’s full name, birth date and even county (thanks to social media!). Strangely enough, you can’t find anything about what happened! Not a court date, sentencing, charges, it just vanished. You know the perpetrators got arrested but you can’t find any information about it. And that my friends is the reality of sealed records.
Each state has its own rules and regulations when it comes to sealing and expunging records. Additionally, some states have different procedures for sealing and expunging a case. Meanwhile, in states like Ohio these two terms are used interchangeably when it comes to juveniles and even adults. For those who are not familiar with these terms, sealing a case is when a criminal record is no longer available to the public and can only be accessed by law enforcement and government agencies. Likewise, expunging a case is completely erasing its existence (digitally and physically) and is inaccessible for everyone. When a case is expunged, that individual can state that they do not have a criminal record. Although one may think this is a free pass, most class F1 and F2 felonies (murder, involuntary manslaughter) are not eligible for sealing. Another charge that directly relates to this project is the broad charge of “terrorism” that most states have which is also not eligible for sealing. So why am I talking about this?
After looking through the list of charges that are not eligible for sealing in different states (Ohio, Texas, and Georgia), an important charge seemed to be missing in all of these lists: material support charges. Although in my previous article about this topic I blamed the individual court systems’ inefficiency, could the lack of information found be a systematic flaw in the system? Are the sealing and expungement criteria not specific enough?
The reason I started investigating this issue so deeply is because of the “Operation Blue Sky” arrest that happened in Arkansas last year. In a short summary, 21 individuals, with ties to the Aryan Brotherhood, were arrested for distributing methamphetamine. Although most of the individuals were previously convicted felons whose records were easy to track, around six individuals were first time offenders. The federal charges for all 6 of them were dropped (not enough evidence found? First time offender luck? Who knows?), however they were charged by the state. Arkansas’ records search is simple and with a small fee of $5 per person, you can find out all their hidden baggage. However, even when I was willing to pay the fee, their charges couldn’t be found. Every time I opened our team spreadsheet, I saw this small clump of cases which were almost done except for the fact that we cannot find their official records. It is truly one of the most frustrating feelings to not be able to fully code this group case.
While the sealing/expungement process is an amazing opportunity to give a second chance to first time offenders, the charges included must be revised. Additionally, the amount of secrecy in the judicial process has to be stopped. As Brian Fitzgerald (1990) wrote, “secrecy in the judicial process is necessary in some situations but it greatly reduces the public’s ability to monitor effectively and understand the judicial process.” While I am joyful that redemption is a path that is offered by our judicial system, I am angered not only at the limitations that it can pose on academic research but also at how easily accessible it is for certain groups but inconceivable for others.
FitzGerald, B. T. (1990). Sealed v. sealed: public court system going secretly private. Journal of Law & Politics, 6(2), 381-414.