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Senate Republican Leader Questions House-Approved Felony Expungement Bill

Empty prison cell
Getty Images
Empty prison cell

The state House on Friday passed a bill that would allow people to clear class D felony convictions from their criminal records five years after they’ve completed their sentences.

The Senate Republicans' leader took little time to begin critiquing the proposed legislation.

The bill’s sponsor, Louisville Democratic Rep. Darryl Owens, said the bill is about redemption and second chances.

“It’s about acknowledging that but for the grace of God could go each of us. But we got lucky,” Owens said.

Those convicted of sex offenses, crimes against the elderly, crimes against children, abuse of public trust, human trafficking, and possession of child pornography would be excluded from the bill.

Similar legislation has passed the Democratic-led House in recent years, but the Republican-led Senate has remained reluctant to follow.

The House OKed the bill on Friday 80-11.

But the prospects for the bill may be better this year.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has thrown his weight behind the issue, joining social justice groups and business organizations at a press conference about expungement last week.

Lexington Republican Rep. Robert Benvenuti has long-opposed the bill, though during a debate Friday he said he supports its principles.

“The problem here is in the bill itself, it goes too far, it sweeps too broadly, it cloaks public information away from the public,” Benvenuti said.

Benvenuti said crimes that could be expunged under the bill include burglary, reckless homicide, assaulting a police officer and wanton endangerment.

Damon Preston, the deputy public advocate, said variations of those charges could, in fact, be expunged from criminal records under the legislation approved in the House.

Others have questioned whether the bill would allow people to have their civil rights restored once they had their felony records cleared.

Kentucky forbids felons voting, running for public office, serving on a jury and owning a firearm, among other things.

The bill now heads to the Senate. Republican Senate President Robert Stivers has questioned the legal mechanism employed in the bill, although he says he isn’t opposed to the concept of giving people a second chance.

“I don’t think most people are, but it’s the method and manner of how you do it so you don’t open Pandora’s box to more problems that you already have,” Stivers said.

Stivers said the bill wouldn’t affect federal laws that dictate what people with felony convictions can and can’t do, but the legislation would create a complicated situation for people who get their records cleared in Kentucky.

Stivers has suggested allowing people who meet the criteria to apply to have their “sentence vacated” by a court so that the conviction essentially never occurred.

Despite Bevin’s support, Stivers said the Senate act independently on the issue.

“We’ll have discussion and dialogue with the opposite chamber and [Bevin] to see if there’s a potential of reaching an agreement on some type of legislation that satisfies both chambers and the first floor,” Stivers said.

Stivers’ counterpart in the House, Speaker Greg Stumbo, said there’s ways to accomplish a bill that satisfies everybody.

“Nobody wants to see people who were convicted of some of these crimes, even if they were class D felonies, probably be expunged,” Stumbo said of some of the more controversial crimes that would still be eligible for expungement under the current proposal.

“But other people whose crimes were less egregious, I think they should have the opportunity to have their records cleared.”

Stumbo also said that “it’s a good question” whether the bill would restore the right to own firearms to those with expunged felonies.