Chairman Whitney Westerfield on Thursday told the Senate Judiciary Committee about a Kentuckian who, despite staying out of trouble for 20 years, still struggles to find a job and whose goal of becoming a physical therapist may be thwarted because he was convicted of a crime as a teenager.
Thousands of willing workers in the same fix came a step closer to a second chance Thursday as House Bill 40 cleared the committee and headed to the Senate floor.
The Senate Judiciary Committee made a number of changes in the measure — some good, some not so good.
The House approved automatic expungement for most Class D felonies, the lowest level, with the exception of violent and sex crimes. The Senate committee made felony expungements discretionary. A judge would decide whether to vacate a conviction based on the circumstances and input from prosecutors and victims.
Unfortunately, the Senate drastically reduced the number of crimes that the House made eligible for expungement. The House bill would cover an estimated 100,000 people.
Most glaring, the Senate version excludes trafficking. In many, probably most, cases, trafficking involves no large drug shipments or high-roller dealers, but is a swap between addicts. Considering our widespread drug problem, this blanket exclusion would doom too many Kentuckians to a nonproductive life and a return ticket to crime.
Logically, the judicial discretion in the Senate version — making it possible for a judge to consider the specifics of an applicant’s criminal past — should open expungement to more offenses, not fewer.
Wisely, the Senate committee agreed with the House on a five-year waiting period after finishing a sentence before expungement could be granted. Many felons serve a five-year probation, which means they would wait 10 years. Research shows that after four or five years without re-offending someone who has been convicted of a crime is no more likely to offend than the general population.
Despite that, some in the Senate are pushing for a 10-year wait, which is too long.
Kentucky created many new felonies over the last three decades. The results: bulging prisons and prison budgets and a workforce shortage for the many employers who disqualify felons from consideration. That’s why the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce joined the push for expungement this year. HB 40 shields employers from having evidence about an expunged felon’s criminal record introduced in a lawsuit against the employer.
Senate Republicans have blocked felony expungement in the past. But Republican Gov. Matt Bevein supports it. In committee, only Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, voted against HB 40, a sign that lawmakers are hearing from constituents who can’t get a job or even volunteer at their child’s or grandchild’s school because of a low-level felony.
Continuing to deny them a second chance helps no one.