Politics & Government

Ky. House passes felony expungement bill with broad support

Boy Scout Troop 1784 from Versailles presented the colors Tuesday in the Kentucky House of Representatives.
Boy Scout Troop 1784 from Versailles presented the colors Tuesday in the Kentucky House of Representatives. cbertram@herald-leader.com

The Kentucky House voted 80 to 11 Friday for a bill that would let people convicted of Class D felonies erase their criminal records and get a second chance at jobs, housing and other opportunities sometimes denied felons.

State law allows people to petition a court to have misdemeanors and violations expunged from all public records five years after they complete their sentences. House Bill 40 would expand that right to Class D felonies — the lowest level of felony, punishable by one to five years in prison — with exceptions, including sex offenses, crimes against children or the elderly, human trafficking and public corruption.

“I believe this legislation’s time has come. There is an overwhelming and growing army of support for expunging the records of people who commit Class D felonies and helping these individuals become successful, productive, employable citizens of the commonwealth,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, said in a floor speech before the vote.

“House Bill 40 is about redemption,” Owens said. “It’s about second chances. It’s about acknowledging that there, but for the grace of God, could go each of us.”

Gov. Matt Bevin previously said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk. But on Friday, Bevin’s office said the governor has “concerns that the bill in its current form expands beyond the original intent.” Bevin did not elaborate.

HB 40 moves from the Democratic House to the Republican Senate, where similar expungement bills have stalled in past sessions. Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said Friday that he has questions about how expungement would work. For example, Stivers asked, would a felon with a cleared record be allowed to vote and own a gun again, rights that are denied to felons in Kentucky?

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, told reporters he didn’t know the answers to Stivers’ questions. The bill doesn’t mention voting rights, which is a state constitutional matter. An expungement makes it as if a crime was never committed, Stumbo said, but a state’s expungement doesn’t trump the federal law barring felons from owning guns.

However, on its website, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says that federal law recognizes state expungements of felonies and permits people who receive them to legally possess firearms.

At some point you have to have a system which is somewhat compassionate. You know, I don’t know if you need to know everything about everybody. I just need to know if you’re going to do good work.

State Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville

A coalition of business leaders, churches and civil rights groups has endorsed HB 40. Supporters say the taint of a criminal record frequently prevents felons from getting hired. Kentucky cannot afford to cast aside tens of thousands of people who could be productive citizens, they say.

On the House floor Friday, several Republican lawmakers praised the bill’s goals, but they said it would allow too many types of serious crimes to be erased from the public record.

Among the felonies that would be expunged under HB 40 are reckless homicide, arson, criminal abuse of animals, domestic violence, burglary, theft, disarming a police officer, fleeing police, and assault on a police officer or school teacher, they said.

“These are not low-level offenses,” said Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington.

Kentuckians have a right to know whether people they are hiring or bringing into their home have a violent criminal past, Benvenuti said. Some employers, such as financial and health-care institutions, are prohibited by law from hiring people convicted of certain felonies, he said. And police officers should be aware if someone they are approaching has a history of fleeing or attacking police, he said.

The principles here are good and laudable. The problem here is the bill itself. It goes too far.

State Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington

“The principles here are good and laudable,” Benvenuti said. “The problem here is the bill itself. It goes too far.”

Several lawmakers asked Owens, the bill’s sponsor, whether expungement would leave employers with any way of knowing that they were about to hire someone with a criminal record, such as a convicted embezzler who applied to work as a bank teller. Owens said the person might be required to divulge it during the application process, “but other than that, no.”

However, Owens said, people could not get an expungement until they completed their sentencesand then waited five more years without having additional criminal problems.

“We’re talking about redemption and forgiveness,” Owens said. “It’s been 10 years! Maybe the guy has changed. Maybe he shouldn’t have to suffer continually because of what dumb mistakes he made when he was in college.”

Owens told his colleagues about a man he recently met who successfully worked for a company for 16 years. Then a criminal background check, required by his employer’s relationship with a second company, turned up his past felony conviction, and he was fired.

“At some point you have to have a system which is somewhat compassionate,” he said. “You know, I don’t know if you need to know everything about everybody. I just need to know if you’re going to do good work.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

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