Ernie Lewis: Give nonviolent ex-felon the vote, second chance

March 21, 2014 

Ernie Lewis is a lobbyist for the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

We all make mistakes. We all stand in need of forgiveness.

Yet if you commit a low-level nonviolent felony in Kentucky when you are young, you will be haunted for the rest of your life, with job opportunities limited and benefits for housing and education denied.

Felony records block opportunity. A felony record is tantamount to an economic death sentence.

Persons convicted of a felony have lifelong problems finding employment even when they do not reoffend.

In Kentucky, there are over 250 barriers to employment, such as a bar to a license for a job, that result from a felony conviction.

The need for expunging records is increasing dramatically. While 30 years ago, we incarcerated only 3,000 persons at a time, that has changed dramatically.

Today we incarcerate over 20,000 — seven times what we did in the 1970s. In addition, over 40,000 persons are being supervised while on probation or parole.

While expungement might not have been a necessity 30 years ago, today the need for a second chance — a reboot, if you will — is acute and growing. At the present time, 94,645 Kentuckians are living with a nonviolent low-level felony conviction. And this figure is growing by the thousands each year.

In 2013 alone, 18,164 persons went into prison, including probation and parole violators and escapees.

Do we really want almost 100,000 of our citizens walking our streets with little or no prospect for a meaningful job?

A second chance is available in House Bill 64, filed by Republican Rep. David Floyd and Democratic Rep. Darryl T. Owens.

This bill would allow people with low-level nonviolent convictions to apply to the circuit court to have their criminal records expunged and removed from public view five years after the sentence ends.

It would be available only for nonviolent Class D felonies. It would not be available to persons convicted of sex crimes, elder abuse, or crimes against a child. It is a modest bill that would do a great good for people.

HB 64 passed in the House by a vote of 79 to 21. It, however, has stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It needs to be called to the committee for a hearing and receive a vote.

Many states have passed felony expungement bills. From 2010 through 2013, at least 20 states expanded or established expungement policies.

Bipartisan collaboration has led to change in red states like Indiana, Mississippi and Utah where Republican lawmakers shepherded reforms to help those with prior convictions have a second chance.

Expungement is about jobs and a second chance. America is the land of opportunity. We believe in second chances. We believe in getting ahead based upon merit. Expungement eliminates barriers to opportunity.

Do we want them to succeed or do we want to punish them perpetually? What we really need to ask ourselves, given the fact that everyone in prison (except a few prisoners serving life sentences) will be released from prison into our communities, is this: What do we want them to do when they hit the streets?

Do we want them to be successful, hard-working, taxpaying citizens who participate in their communities? Or do we want to continue to punish them for a mistake they made many years ago? It's a policy choice Kentuckians need to make.

Let's pass expungement this session. As U.S. Sen. Rand Paul testified at a recent state Senate committee, "Most of us believe in a second chance ... maybe some of these things could be expunged from your record after a period of time."

That can occur this year, but only if HB 64 is called in Senate Judiciary.

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