Expungement wisely offers a second chance

Essentially disqualifying almost 100,000 Kentuckians from holding a job because of a past mistake hurts more than just the individuals.

That is why the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has joined efforts to expand the number of people who would be eligible to wipe their criminal records clean.

The chamber is urging the legislature to “help address Kentucky’s qualified workforce shortage” by expanding the state’s expungement law to include arrests and convictions for the least serious felonies, those punishable by one to five years in prison. Now Kentucky makes expungement an option for misdemeanors only.

In an era when prisons brim with people whose untreated addictions push them toward crime, House Bill 40, which has cleared the House and is awaiting Senate action, would offer a reprieve from what advocates call an “economic death penalty.” Employers routinely ask about criminal records. Expungement allows applicants to say they have no arrests or convictions.

Do not panic. Nothing in HB 40 would usher anyone from behind bars directly into a job caring for children or installing your cable. Far from it. The law mandates a five-year wait after leaving prison or probation. For many, that would mean staying clean for 10 years because five years of probation follow many convictions. To win expungement, the felon would have to petition the court and pay a fee, screening out those who are not serious about getting on track.

Most recidivism occurs within three years of an arrest and steadily declines with time clean, according to research. A pair of criminologists studied the histories of 88,000 individuals arrested in New York in hopes of providing empirical evidence on when ex-offenders can be safely considered for employment. They found, depending on the crime and the offender’s age, that after 3.8 years to 4.4 years without re-offending, the study group was no more likely than the general population to commit a crime. That’s a powerful statistical argument for redemption.

But, you say, employers are already free to hire people with criminal convictions. HB 40 gives employers added protection by shielding them from having evidence about an expunged felon’s criminal record introduced in a lawsuit against the employer.

In addition to limiting job opportunities, a felony can exclude parents from activities at their children’s schools.

HB 40 does not cover people convicted of multiple felonies or who committed a sex crime or a crime against a child or an elderly person. If it becomes law, some states would still have more lenient expungement policies than Kentucky.

No one is line for a “get out of jail free” card, just a second chance. Kentucky should stop depriving itself of willing workers who want to support themselves. The safeguards are in place; the Senate should approve HB 40 and Gov. Matt Bevin should sign it.