During our last legislative session, we became aware of a young man (we’ll call him Sam to protect his privacy) who was only 20 years old when he was charged with a low-level marijuana offense. He was scared and, like most of us, intimidated by our large and complex legal system. He accepted the advice of his overworked public defender, who at the time assured him that by taking a plea deal, everything would be okay.
Yet atonement wasn’t as straightforward as Sam was led to believe. He was forced to face – as tens of thousands of other Kentuckians have – a slew of hidden and informal punishments with agonizing costs that he and his family still feel today.
If Sam could go back, he’d do things differently. He accepts that he was in the wrong by breaking the law. However, he would have sought redemption another way, perhaps a diversion program in lieu of a conviction. That’s because a felony on his record – even a low-level one – has continued to affect virtually every aspect of his life, in spite of his courageous work to overcome addiction.
There are tens of thousands of “collateral consequences”—restrictions on access to jobs, housing, voting, education and opportunities. And these consequences follow people for the rest of their lives, making it harder for them to find work, raise their families, and become productive members of society.
We co-sponsored Senate Bill 57 for people like them, Kentuckians who are committed to turning their lives around, but face obstacles at every turn. This bill, which passed the Kentucky General Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support, expanded the number of offenses that are eligible for expungement, reduced the waiting period to expunge these offenses to five years, and lessened the expungement fee from $500 to $250, which can be made in an installment plan if necessary. While not perfect, this legislation helps made a fresh start more accessible to all communities.
We all agree people should be held accountable when they break the law, even low-level offenders. But we should be sure that the crime and the direct and indirect consequences are proportional. SB 57 helps ensure that people who commit low-level offenses, aren’t doomed to face a lifetime of consequences associated with being labeled a convicted felon, such as being barred from chaperoning their kids’ field trips, securing adequate housing, or getting a foot in the door for a decent-paying job.
Low-level felonies also make it difficult, if not impossible, to vote. They cut off career options, particularly involving law and medicine, as well as educational and scholarship opportunities. They prevent students from living on campus and becoming part of their learning communities. And forget owning a home. A felony record can diminish even basic rental options.
Make no mistake, this impacts our entire community. It hurts our economy when employers can’t hire skilled workers, and makes us less safe when people with records have no option but to return to a life of crime.
For all these reasons, we decided to work together on this important legislation, even though we represent different political parties. And for that, we’ve been told that our work on SB 57 will receive recognition from the Coalition for Public Safety, the nation’s largest bipartisan organization working to make our justice system fairer and more effective. Together, we will accept the “People over Partisanship” award at the “Celebration of Second Chances,” an event that will take place Derby Eve in Lexington. Lawmakers, advocates, impacted families and well-known philanthropists will gather together to enjoy world-class music, good food, and learn more about the work people all over the country are doing to expand opportunity, and make our communities safer.
The event will also highlight stories of redemption, and allow people like Sam to share their stories and draw attention to much-needed changes in our justice system. Sam has turned his life around, and he draws from his experiences to help others, serving as a motivational speaker for groups across the country on overcoming addiction. He’s also working to bring a new recovery center to Kentucky.
We are a country built on second chances, and we know that our past, while it shapes us, does not define who we are. And even though we are lawmakers on opposite sides of the aisle, this is just one of the areas where we couldn’t agree more.
Sen. Jimmy Higdon is a Republican member of the Kentucky State Senate. Sen. Gerald Neal is a Democratic member of the Kentucky State Senate.