Supporters urge action on low-level felony expungement legislation this session

01/06/2016 11:02 PM

FRANKFORT — Rebecca Collett hasn’t abused mind- or mood-altering drugs in seven years, yet a felony conviction for trafficking at age 20 has haunted her as she tried to piece her life together.

The mother of two said she could only find employment at McDonald’s with her class D felony record, and she was denied entry in subsidized housing and colleges before she was finally admitted to the University of Louisville, where she will soon earn a master’s degree in social work.

Still, Collett said her record prevents her from volunteering at her kids’ school.

“I’m by no means perfect, but I know I deserve a second change,” she said Wednesday during a Kentucky Chamber of Commerce news conference endorsing low-level felony expungement.

“My experience in the criminal justice system felt like a maze, every path leading to a dead end. Unfortunately a lot of folks don’t have a positive ending like mine. It’s only common sense to provide these people with alternatives that ensure better outcomes.”

Collett is one of about 94,000 Kentuckians who would benefit from a law allowing the expungement non-violent class D felonies.

The state’s business leaders are widely backing expungement legislation for the first time this year, in part to get those with a single low-level felony conviction “engaged meaningfully in the work force,” said Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky chamber.

Brian Quick, president of Commerce Lexington Inc., said he and other business groups will be urging lawmakers to pass an expungement bill during the 60-day session.

“There is a ready-made workforce out there that we’re ignoring, and we cannot do that anymore,” Quick said.

The legislation includes a five-year waiting period and would require a court hearing before taking effect, said co-sponsors of House Bill 40, Reps. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, and David Floyd, R-Bardstown.

For Owens, expunging some class D felonies would change the lives of many, while Floyd called the matter one of justice. Senate Minority Caucus Chair Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, said he will file a similar expungement bill in the Senate.

“There are 90-some thousand individuals whose lives will be changed significantly by this piece of legislation,” Owens said.

Newly elected Gov. Matt Bevin is also a supporter of the bill, which has sailed through the Democrat-led House of Representatives before stalling in the GOP-controlled Senate.

He urged the Senate to take action on the legislation, saying the issue of low-level felony expungement “transcends races, this transcends socioeconomic status, this transcends partisanship.”

“The reality is this is the right thing to do,” Bevin said. “It is the right thing to do, and it is the right time to do it.”

Senate President Robert Stivers told reporters later Wednesday that the topic “needs a lot of thought” as it moves through the legislative process.

“When you talk about specific instances, people will say, ‘Yes, but what about this?’ and then, ‘Well, does it apply to that?’” Stivers said. “So I think there is a lot of, I don’t want to say there’s opposition. I think there is a lot of questions.”

Expungement would not automatically restore a felon’s civil rights, according to Bevin and Stivers.

Bevin said he would prefer to see both expungement and the restoration of civil rights for low-level felons addressed in a single piece of legislation. In one of his first executive actions as governor, Bevin reversed an executive order from former Gov. Steve Beshear restoring voting and public office rights for some class D felons, calling Beshear’s action “illegal.”

Bevin said he would like to see a law codified rather than left to individual governors.

“It could not be something that could then be swept in and swept out,” he said. “As easily as I was able to reverse that is a perfect example of the fact that it should not have been done. It should not be that easy.”

Political reporter Don Weber contributed to this report.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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