A guest post by Molly Rose Green
Nationally and locally, awareness of the long-lasting and pervasive effects of criminal records is increasing. Many Kentuckians with prior convictions work hard to be productive members of society, but their criminal records unnecessarily hamper those efforts.
Today in Kentucky, expungement is unavailable to citizens convicted of even the lowest level felonies. Kentuckians can expunge a misdemeanor conviction, but even then under limited circumstances – to qualify, the person must have had no convictions in the five years preceding, and wait five years with no additional convictions.
For several years now, House Bill 40 has proposed expanding expungement in Kentucky to cover low-level felony convictions. However, this year the bill is gathering more bipartisan support, as well as the endorsement of many business interests. Specifically, HB40 would make nonviolent Class D felony convictions eligible for expungement, subject to the same restrictions currently in place for misdemeanor convictions which include a five-year waiting period after completion of the sentence, and exemption for crimes involving children or sexual offenses.
Importantly, HB40 also includes a provision that would provide protection from certain lawsuits to employers who hire former felons. It would prohibit the introduction of information pertaining to an expunged conviction as evidence in a civil suit or administrative proceeding alleging negligent hiring or licensing. That means that even if an employer could find out about an expunged conviction through a Google search for example, that evidence still could not be used against the employer.
On October 14, the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary held a hearing in Hopkinsville, KY, where it heard testimony on the expungement bill. Representative Darryl Owens, the bill’s sponsor, introduced HB40, noting that although it had been introduced many times before, significant factors have made it even more critical now. He stated that top companies in the state are turning away qualified applicants, merely because of mistakes they made in the past: “Those mistakes have been adjudicated by our courts, individuals have served their sentences and paid their fines, yet they and our economy continue to be penalized.”
Next, Sarah Davasher-Wisdom of Greater Louisville Inc., testified in favor of the bill. She stated that the Louisville chamber of commerce supports HB40 because expungement will reduce the obstacles that limit employment opportunities for many Kentuckians, helping to integrate them into the local economy. Russell Coleman, of Frost, Brown, Todd and the Coalition for Public Safety, who is also a former senior advisor to Mitch McConnell and FBI special agent, also testified in favor. He discussed how the left and right are coming together to support expungement, noting the importance of re-integrating people into society and into the workforce: "One in three people have a criminal record, and their applications are going into the trash."
The next speaker was West Powell, who was convicted of burglary for stealing a radio in 1989 when he was 18 years old. He is in school for physical therapy and is concerned about being licensed – he testified that even 26 years later, his criminal record is impacting his life: "I made a mistake but I think I paid for it four times over." Finally, Representative David Floyd, a Republican who has co-sponsored the bill in the past, read a letter from Mac Brown, VP of the Brown-Forman Corporation in support of the bill.
Many other states are taking or have already taken steps to expand expungement. From 2010 through 2014, at least 21 states expanded or established expungement policies. Further, several nearby states have more advanced policies than Kentucky. For example, Indiana’s recently passed Second Chance Law expanded eligible crimes to include Class D and some other felonies. In Ohio, eligible felony convictions can be expunged after three years.
If passed, HB40 would make 94,645 Kentuckians eligible for class D felony expungement, according to AOC and KSP.
For the next year, Molly Rose Green will be partnering with the DPA Frankfort office on a fellowship project funded by the Initiative for Public Interest Law at Yale. The project aims to expand access to expungement in Kentucky through community education, direct services, and legislative advocacy. Molly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (859) 576-2276.