Expungement fee punitive, bad policy

Last year the General Assembly took an important step toward allowing people who had been convicted of certain low-level felonies to rebuild their lives by clearing their criminal records.

But at the same time they threw up a barrier by setting the fee to apply for a felony expungement at $500, a huge amount for someone struggling with limited job opportunities.

The expungement process permitted through House Bill 40 allows those who have served their time and stayed out of trouble for five more years a chance to clear their records of the felony charges. A clean record means better access to, among other things, jobs.

That’s why the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and other business interests pushed for HB 40. In need of workers, they were frustrated by the thousands eliminated from the legitimate labor market because of felony records.

So, it’s troubling that, in an odd Catch-22, they set such a high fee, one of the highest in the nation. Even more disturbing, the bulk of that fee, $450, is not allocated to defray the costs of processing expungement requests but goes directly into the General Fund that pays most of state government’s bills.

Expungements as a profit center? It’s punitive and bad policy.

People who get decent jobs in the legitimate workforce pay taxes and, generally, stay out of trouble. That’s worth far more over time than a one-time $450 gain for state coffers.

There are lot of former felons who could get jobs and pay those taxes — perhaps as many as 60,000. But in the first six months the law was in effect, only about 350 people had cleared their records through felony expungement, according to data requested by the Department of Public Advocacy.

More are interested, as evidenced by the turnout at a free expungement information session in Lexington this week. Organizers expected a few dozen but about 200 people showed up to get help in clearing their records. Attorneys were on hand to help those interested.

But even with free professional help, the $500 fee dampened the hopes of many who came.

This session Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, expands felonies eligible for expungement but does not address the fee. On a Kentucky Tonight segment about criminal justice legislation this week, Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a leader in criminal-justice reform, said he doesn’t see “a huge appetite” for more expungement legislation. Westerfield explained, “some folks think we do too many things that are pro-defendant.”

It’s a broad brush, one that unfairly and unproductively stigmatizes people who have served their time and peacefully waited five additional years as lifetime “defendants.”

The fee is not the expungement law’s only problem but it is easily fixed. Higdon’s bill should be amended to reduce it and include provisions to waive it for those who can’t pay. And lawmakers should pass SB 16.

It’s past time to get more Kentuckians back to work.