Felony expungement supporters herald bill signed into law as a second chance for many Kentuckians

04/12/2016 09:59 PM

FRANKFORT — Thousands of Kentuckians will be able to have low-level felony convictions wiped from their records in an expungement bill ceremonially signed into law Tuesday.

House Bill 40 covers a number of Class D felonies that can be vacated under the new law, such as third-degree burglary, drug possession and prescription forgery, five years after the completion of their sentences, including parole and probation.

Gov. Matt Bevin signed HB 40 into law on Tuesday, saying the legislation is another chance for many in Kentucky and noting his support of the concept during his gubernatorial campaign.

“It is critical that there is an opportunity for redemption, that there is an opportunity for second chances because America is a land that was founded on these principles,” Bevin said during a bill signing in the Capitol Rotunda.

“The greatness and the uniqueness and the beauty and the extraordinary nature of America itself is based on the fact that we do give people an opportunity for redemption, and this piece of legislation offers the very same thing for individuals.”

Rep. Darryl Owens, a Louisville Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, has championed felony-expungement legislation in recent sessions, and he credited one felon, West Powell, with helping sway Senate Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield’s opinion on the subject.

Powell cited his past struggles to find employment and educational opportunities when he told lawmakers on the Interim Joint Judiciary Committee Oct. 14 that he worried about finding a job in physical therapy because of a 25-year-old felony conviction, even though he carried a 4.0 grade-point average at the time, according to minutes of the meeting.

“Your testimony led him to understand the difficulty that people in your situation have, and because of that, he changed his mind on this piece of legislation,” said Owens, sponsor of HB 40.

“As the chair of the judiciary committee of the Senate, his help and support were critical.”

For Westerfield, “something clicked” as he listened to Powell share his personal experiences during that October meeting in Hopkinsville.

“Something made me think, ‘You know, this guy’s done what we ask everyone in the criminal justice system to do,’” said Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville. “Once you’ve broken the law, you’ve paid your sentence, you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do and you quit breaking the law, you’ve done what we’ve asked. You’ve stopped committing crimes.”

“This isn’t about (Powell),” he continued. “It’s about the nearly 100,000 others like him across Kentucky that can benefit for this hope-giving, redemption-providing bill.”

Westerfield also said Senate President Robert Stivers played a more important role in getting HB 40 to Bevin’s desk, crediting the Manchester Republican with crafting much of the language in the legislation’s final form.

But work on the topic, and others like it, isn’t finished. Owens has said he would like to see the list of eligible Class D felonies expanded and the $500 court filing fee reduced.

Bevin told reporters that he would like to see legislation restoring some civil rights, such as voting, cross his desk.

“I think it’s important that we change the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and that will require a decision by the people of Kentucky to put this on the ballot to allow the restoration of voting rights, for example,” the governor said.

“A restoration for people who, again, meeting certain criteria that will be determined by these kind of conversations, but whether it’s voting rights or the right to bear arms or whatever the case may be, there are certain civil rights that people lose as a part of the judicial process that I would be a proponent of seeing being restored. That, to me, should be a logical next step.”


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