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Commentary: Fulfilling the promise of the REDEEM Act

Harold Coleman, a Maryland Department of Transportation employee and advocate for formerly incarcerated individuals. Photo courtesy of Harold Coleman.

By Flannery Gallagher and Heather Warnken

Gallagher is a legal fellow at the University of Baltimore School of Law Center for Criminal Justice Reform. Warnken is executive director at the Center for Criminal Justice Reform and former member of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council. The writers are members of the Maryland Expungement Coalition.

Harold Coleman, 56, of Reisterstown, has served the public honorably for 15 years as a maintenance worker on Maryland’s bridges. His work for the Maryland Department of Transportation is a source of pride and purpose, along with his extensive ties to his ample community of family and friends.

However, Mr. Coleman has two past convictions on his record that continue to hold him back from starting the business he has dreamed of for years. One is for car theft that happened 36 years ago, while the other is a 27-year-old fourth-degree burglary conviction. Although “just” a non-violent misdemeanor, Mr. Coleman’s burglary charge carries an additional weight, as it was the result of him having to sleep in an abandoned building when he was experiencing homelessness.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Coleman is redemption personified. He is an indefatigable advocate in Annapolis, where he is widely known and respected by legislators, fellow advocates, and adversaries. He turns up at committee hearings time and again to share his story, and to encourage others to see the value and importance of second chances. And he does it all on his own time because he desperately wants things to change, not just for himself, but for the 1.5 million other Marylanders with criminal records.

Mr. Coleman’s policy advocacy, in conjunction with the leadership of Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery) and Del. Sandy Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel), helped make the historic passage of the REDEEM Act possible. The REDEEM Act, sponsored by the two lawmakers, significantly reduced the time a person must wait to file a petition to expunge an eligible conviction after satisfactorily completing his sentence, including any period of probation.

The REDEEM Act’s bill signing in 2023 was a joyous day of celebration and possibility for countless Marylanders and deeply personal to Mr. Coleman. He and others believed that this promising new law would allow him — finally — to ask a judge to consider whether his petition for an expungement is in the interest of justice. If successful, Mr. Coleman could unlock the professional advancement that has eluded him because of his record for several decades. Nothing was a given, but the door that had been shut in Mr. Coleman’s face was at last open — or so it seemed.

What Mr. Coleman could not have anticipated at the time was that, by a strange twist of judicial interpretation, having violated probation decades ago would permanently bar him from having a judge even consider his expungement request. In a 2022 case known as In re Expungement Petition of Abhishek I., the Maryland Court of Special Appeals found that a probation violation, regardless of its nature or reason, meant that Mr. Abhishek had not satisfactorily completed his sentence.

Because of this interpretation, Marylanders like Mr. Coleman who violated probation in decades-old cases are permanently and categorically barred from having their records cleared, even for something as minor as a late arrival to a probation appointment or possession of a small amount of cannabis, a now legal substance. Without the Maryland General Assembly passing new legislation to address this injustice, all Mr. Coleman’s hard work, rehabilitation, and growth will be forever ignored by the state and the criminal justice system.

A solution to this needless barrier is within reach. After passing out of the House with an overwhelmingly affirming 104-33 vote, House Bill 73, sponsored by Del. Bartlett, is currently stalled in the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, where it must receive a vote to have a chance to pass before the conclusion of the Maryland General Assembly’s 2024 legislative session.

House Bill 73 makes clear that the waiting period for expungement should begin when an individual’s “sentence has expired, including any period of probation, parole, or mandatory supervision,” removing the term “satisfies” and “satisfactorily” from the statutes. This means that once a person with an eligible conviction has served the entirety of their sentence, including any period of probation, and waited an additional 5-10-year period as defined by statute, they will then be eligible to request that the court expunge their conviction.

House Bill 73 is merely a technical fix designed to clarify the legislative intent of the REDEEM Act, which was to improve, not limit, access to expungement.

House Bill 73 will give Marylanders with eligible convictions the opportunity to present their case for expungement to the court and to allow a judge to decide if it is in the interest of justice to grant it. This is critical for two key reasons.

First, permanently barring expungements for people with probation violations reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and reality of rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is not easy, and it is not quick.

Making a mistake while on probation does not mean that someone is incapable of making change in their lives moving forward. Expecting people to change overnight is unrealistic and unfair, especially for individuals like Mr. Coleman, who, at the time of their involvement in the criminal legal system, were deeply impoverished and experiencing homelessness. Probation violations are stumbles, not permanent detours, and Maryland should not be in the business of punishing people for imperfection when they have paid their debt to society and transformed their lives.

Second, allowing people with probation violations to have a judge consider whether their record should be expunged is good for all Marylanders. The impact of a criminal record on individuals, families, and communities is staggering, impeding access to higher wages, stable housing, education, health care, occupational licensing, parental rights, and more. In addition, ample research demonstrates that the collateral consequences of having a criminal record make us all less safe. Alleviating the burden of these collateral consequences promotes the human dignity and meaningful societal participation that help any of us succeed.

House Bill 73 fulfills the promise of the REDEEM Act. Harold Coleman and countless others like him deserve the opportunity to have a chance at a future without the stain of a criminal record. Now is the time to move Maryland forward as a state where the values of redemption and rehabilitation are not just encouraged, but truly recognized, and fulfilled.



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Commentary: Fulfilling the promise of the REDEEM Act