After hearing a young woman describe her difficulties in trying to get a job with a felony drug record, a House committee approved a bill Wednesday to make it easier for some convicted felons to start anew with a clean slate.
Supporters of House Bill 40 said the expungement of some felony records would restore hope to nearly 100,000 Kentuckians who have served their sentences for non-violent felony convictions, which carry sentences of up to five years in prison.
For nearly 15 years, the Kentucky General Assembly has been considering such legislation, which would help felons land jobs, gain admission to colleges and find housing. The measure in past sessions has sailed through the Democratic-controlled House but stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
This year, it enjoys the support of Kentucky’s new governor, Republican Matt Bevin, who has said he would sign it into law if the legislature sends it to his desk.
HB 40, sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, would not apply to anyone who has multiple felony convictions or committed a sex crime or a crime against a child or an elderly person.
The bill cleared its first hurdle in this year’s legislative session on a 15-3 vote, with one pass, in the House Judiciary Committee. It now goes to the full House for its consideration. The House might vote on it Friday.
The committee heard testimony for the bill from Rebecca Collett, who was raised in Harlan County and was considered a good student until she “started hanging out with the wrong crowd.”
Collett said she was arrested at age 20 for a drug-related charge and served 22 months for her conviction.
But next month, Collett said, she will celebrate eight years of sobriety and hopes to graduate this year in social work from the University of Louisville.
Her conviction has haunted her as she has tried to get a job, she said. She told the committee that a McDonald’s wouldn’t even consider her because of her record.
The bill also has brought together a new, diverse coalition to rally for it. Members of the Kentucky Smart on Crime coalition include the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, ACLU of Kentucky, Catholic Conference of Kentucky, Kentucky Council of Churches, Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky Center for Economic Policy and Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“To see groups that are often on opposing sides in public policy matters come together to support this common cause is a testament to the significance and urgency criminal justice reform has taken in this country,” said Russell Coleman, a Louisville attorney and former FBI special agent who is the coalition’s spokesman.
Coleman testified before the House committee with Collett. Others testifying for the bill were Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky Chamber President Dave Adkisson and state Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown.
Adkisson said the chamber backs the measure because of “workforce pressures,” noting that 10,000 “baby boomers” are retiring each day in this country.
“Accessing qualified, skilled employees is the No. 1 issue for job growth and economic development in Kentucky. But, because of a past mistake, many — thousands of Kentuckians — who want to work and have the necessary skills can’t even get an interview,” said Grimes. “With the economic and workforce challenges we face, it’s time this legislation passes. It’s time thousands of Kentuckians get a deserved second chance.”
Some Republicans on the House committee had questions about the bill.
Rep. Robert Benvenuti III, R-Lexington, said employers should know if their prospective hires have had a felony conviction. He also said the bill excuses too many types of felonies.
Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, said the bill does not say how society would deal with felony information found on the Internet and whether that would be admissible in a court proceeding.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, later told reporters that he wants to know how people who have had a felony conviction expunged would have to answer when asked if they have ever been convicted of a felony on employment forms.
“People understand that individuals need a second chance,” Stivers said. “How are you going to define that second chance to make sure that it is in compliance with everything else that is out there in the world?”
Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said HB 40 “will help parents get back to work and support their families without being held back by past mistakes.”
“We believe 2016 is the year for this bill to become a reality,” he said.