A common call for help to the Coalition is from those denied a record they asked for under the D.C. public records law, the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA.
Four bills intended to help poor, minority D.C. residents move on with their lives after contacts with the criminal justice system could have the opposite impact, the Coalition, The Washington Post, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told the D.C. Council Judiciary Committee Dec. 14. The bills would automatically seal court and police records in many cases, impeding the public and news media from acting as watchdogs, and endangering public confidence that the D.C. criminal justice system treats every defendant equally and fairly.
Robert Becker, Coalition government relations chair testified that in September, shortly after Mayor Bowser announced her intention to introduce Bill 22-560 and Councilmember Grosso circulated a draft of Bill 22-447, the Coalition went on record supporting their underlying goal — protecting individual rights. D.C. residents should be able to move on with their lives without fear that public or private entities will deny them jobs, housing, credit or other benefits due to past arrests, charges terminated short of conviction, and in some cases that end with convictions. We recognize as well that there may be cases where sealing records would be appropriate after full consideration of competing interests.
As we said then, access to court records is crucial for the public to hold its governmental leaders, including law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts, accountable for arrests, prosecutions, and case outcomes. These bills seem to overlook the harm to public confidence in the criminal justice system and to individual rights that would result if large volumes of police and criminal case records are sealed.
We encourage all involved to engage in an open process to determine how we can help D.C. residents improve their lives without infringing the public’s constitutional right to access information. We believe a balance is possible and appreciate the opportunity to work together to identify and achieve that balance.