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January 30, 2013

Criminal records expungement bill moves forward

INDIANAPOLIS — Legislation that would allow more people the opportunity to erase their criminal records if they could show they’d redeemed themselves passed a critical vote Wednesday.

The House Courts and Criminal Code Committee voted to send the bill on to the full House, after hearing testimony from ex-offenders who said their long-ago convictions made it hard for them to find work and access other opportunities often denied to people with a record.

Among them was 66-year-old Bob Wilson of Indianapolis, who said he’s been out of prison and out of trouble since 1973, after serving time for a robbery he committed when he was 19.

“My question is: When do you stop being an ex-con?” said Wilson. “I’ve been out for 40 years and done everything expected of me.”

Under the legislation, authored by state Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, residents with long-ago arrests or convictions could petition a judge to expunge their records if they meet certain conditions.

Indiana currently has a criminal records “sealing” law that allows people with long ago, low-level arrests or convictions to get a court order to shield that record from public view. But it only applies to certain misdemeanors and Class D felonies.

The expungement bill goes further: It allows judges to expunge — or virtually erase — some class B and class C felonies from the records. Arrest and conviction records that are eligible to be sealed under the current law would also be eligible to be expunged.

There are limits: There is a waiting period of at least five years after a sentence is completed; violent crimes and sex crimes couldn’t be expunged; and the person seeking the expungement would have to show they’d stayed out of trouble.  

Similar legislation has failed in the past, with some lawmakers arguing that employers have a right to know someone’s criminal history.

Disadvantage cited

But bill supporters argue that since Indiana is one of the few states without a criminal-records expungement law, it puts Indiana residents with a record at a disadvantage when seeking work.

Andrew Cullen, legislative liaison for the Indiana Public Defender Council said someone from another state who had his criminal record expunged could pass a criminal background check, while an Indiana resident with a record couldn’t.

Cullen also argued the bill offers an incentive to people with a criminal record.  

“This is the type of bill that not only reduces recidivism, which assists the criminal justice system, but it gives people who’ve committed a crime the hope, that one day, that’s going to finally be behind them if they follow the rules.”

The bill has also earned the support of the Greater Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Angela Smith Jones, the chamber’s director of public policy, said the cost of high unemployment among ex-offenders takes a toll on communities.

“It deteriorates the community — structurally, economically, emotionally and socially,” she said. “For all of those reasons, it’s important for those who’ve remedied themselves and are on the right path, to give them opportunity to get back into the workforce, get trained and contribute to the community.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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