Supporters of expungement legislation see glimmers of hope ahead of next year's session

11/27/2015 07:32 PM

Gov. Steve Beshear’s decision to sign an executive order restoring the rights to vote and hold office for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes earlier this week earned him praise.

But advocates for low-level felony expungement say such legislation would be pivotal in removing societal barriers for those who hope to move ahead with their lives.

State Reps. Darryl Owens and David Floyd have spearheaded efforts at felony expungement in recent years, with House Bill 40 passing the Democrat-led House of Representatives by a 58-vote margin in 2014 and a 70-vote margin this year.

“You cannot talk to a legislator in the House or the Senate who has not been contacted by a constituent in their district asking them for relief from this,” said Owens, D-Louisville.

“You have people who’ve been convicted of felonies 15, 20 years ago and they still have to put that on their job application. I’ve had letters from people out of state who were convicted of a felony in Kentucky.”

The legislation wouldn’t provide automatic expungement for those who complete their sentences for nonviolent, non-sexual Class D convictions.

Under HB 40, felons would be eligible for expungement five years after the completion of their sentences. Defendants would be required to petition the court to have the felony removed from their public criminal record, and prosecutors and victims would be notified of the court hearing before the felony conviction is stricken from their public record.

“A person who has a felony in their background now has no hope except by executive pardon,” said Floyd, R-Bardstown. “… The hope that they have through this would be that there is a chance. If I remain clean, you know, I’ve paid the price for what I’ve done but I remain clean, I live right, within five years I can have this wiped off of my record and I can go to those jobs that I can’t apply to now. I can get my CDL; I can work in certain health care facilities; I can work for the state.”

Both Owens and Floyd have seen HB 40’s prospects improve in recent years with Republicans like U.S. Senator Rand Paul, Gov.-elect Matt Bevin and Republican Party of Kentucky Chairman Mac Brown backing the concept.

Earlier this month, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce voiced its support for low-level felony expungement after a waiting period.

Chamber President Dave Adkisson explained that businesses across the state would benefit from the increased workforce. He called the change in attitude “a fairly significant change for the business community.”

“The workforce shortages that we’re really seeing in the urban areas in Kentucky and really all over Kentucky, it’s actually going to get worse before it gets better because, two reasons,” Adkisson said. “One is the economy is improving, which of course is a good thing, so more jobs are being created, but number two, there are a lot of baby boomers retiring — over 10,000 per day in the United States are retiring — so there are more people exiting the workforce than there are coming in to the workforce.”

Bevin says those convicted of low-level felonies deserve a second chance in society. He said he plans to “move through this in a methodical fashion, but it is something that I intend to sign into law in the very near future.”

“We have 180,000 people who’ve basically been created in a subclass in this state who have been carrying around this black mark, and it was deserved,” Bevin said. “It was earned, but this is a nation of redemption.”

“I truly believe we owe people an opportunity for nonviolent offenses, people who have victimless crimes, to be able to remove certain things from their record,” he continued.

Owens and Floyd said HB 40’s chances in the Republican-led Senate have reached a new high.

Owens is confident the legislation will pass not only the Senate Judiciary Committee, but a floor vote in the Senate as well.

How far HB 40 goes will depend largely on the language of the bill.

Senate President Robert Stivers says lawmakers have had good discussions on the topic, but there need to be more.

However, he says the legislation has a chance of passing next year.

“It’s not that we are opposed to the issue. It’s a question of how you do that ultimate process of dealing with those issues,” said Stivers, R-Manchester. “I think we understand that there are individuals who were young, made mistakes that have a hard time getting jobs that have done nothing wrong for 10 or 12 years that we need to look at that.”

“That’s really a very simple ideological fix for us, but then as you start getting closer in time to the last time they did something, it becomes more problematic,” he continued.

Owens says data suggest that those who stay crime-free for three to five years after their sentences will likely not reoffend at a greater amount than the general population, and both he and Floyd say they’re optimistic HB 40 will be sent to Bevin’s desk next year.

“Forget the data,” Owens said. “Do we believe in redemption? Are we going to give people a second chance? Remember, we’re talking about people who have committed a low-level nonviolent felony offense. Once in their life. If you’ve got two or three, this bill doesn’t help you.”

Said Floyd: “I’m not just hopeful about House Bill 40 passing. I’m cautiously optimistic about it. I think I’ve seen a great deal of movement.”


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