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Formerly-incarcerated Kentuckians advocate for bill to automate expungements

 Kim Moser sits at table in legislative committee room
Getty Images
Proposed legislation would automatically begin the expungement process for people with eligible criminal records.

Formerly-incarcerated advocates say the process to clear criminal records is cost and time-prohibitive. A bill in the Kentucky legislature aims to automate the process.

Amanda Hall was charged with drug trafficking, a Class C felony in Kentucky at the time, for carrying two prescription pills. After finishing her sentence, she said it felt impossible to re-enter her community.

Her criminal record made it a challenge to find housing, get a full time job and even apply to college.

“I was working, at the time, three jobs. They were all part-time jobs because I couldn't get a good job at the time due to my convictions,” Hall said.

Hall said when she applied to lease an apartment, some landlords would turn her away the moment she told them about her felony conviction.

Now, she is the justice director at Dream.Org, a criminal justice reform organization advocating for a bill that would automatically expunge some criminal records in Kentucky once they become eligible..

She advocated for legislation in 2019 that expanded the list of certain misdemeanors and low-level felony convictions that can be expunged, meaning they are completely removed from a person’s record and do not show up in background checks.

But the process is still flawed, according to Hall and other criminal justice activists. In Kentucky, people who are eligible for an expungement must initiate the legal process, which can be complicated, cost-prohibitive and time-consuming.

Navigating the expungement process is time-consuming and can cost several thousand dollars, according to Jesse Kelley, a campaign strategist with the Clean Slate Initiative, a national organization that organizes campaigns to expand and automate the criminal record-clearing process in state governments.

“If their record is cleared, that person will benefit by getting a stable job, getting stable housing, getting higher education,” Kelley said. “By bolstering all these prosocial behaviors a person can explore without a criminal history record, that's also decreasing their chances of recidivating or committing another crime.”

Rep. Kim Moser, a Republican from Taylor Mill, sponsored a bill to automate the expungement process in Kentucky’s legislative session this year, but it never got a hearing. She says she plans to file the measure again in 2024.

“There are still requirements of the individual to hold them accountable,” Moser said. “We trust the court system to impose sentences and we require the individual to serve those out. The question is, at what point do we stop punishing people?”

Under the proposal, the expungement process would be initiated by the government, rather than individuals. Every month, Kentucky State Police and the Administrative Office of the Courts would compile a list of people who are eligible for expungements and within 30 days send the list to courts where convictions originated. Local judges would then sign off on the expungements.

Recipients would not be charged any fees or have to go before the court. Then, courts would notify people whose records were cleared.

Moser’s bill would not expand eligibility for expungement. Only people who remain crime-free for five years after serving their sentence — finishing parole, paying all associated debts — are eligible. It would also only allow for misdemeanors and certain Class D felonies to be expunged, excluding any sexual crimes or crimes involving children.

According to data from the Clean Slate Initiative, 38% of Kentuckians have something on their record: a conviction, an arrest or charges that never led to a conviction. And roughly 10% of those people are eligible for expungement but have yet to pursue one.

Kelley said even those who were arrested but not charged or convicted with a crime must go through the time-consuming and costly process of expunging their record.

But the proposal has opponents in the Kentucky legislature. Sen. John Schickel, a Republican from Union, said during a recent legislative hearing that the policy would hurt businesses who are reviewing potential employees’ criminal records.

“Who are we to say that the government can hide that from us? I don’t understand that. We shouldn’t be making decisions for small businesses, these small businesses should be making that decision on their own, having all the pertinent information” he said.

The legislation has gained support from Goodwill Industries of Kentucky, which offers legal clinics that guide people through the expungement process and cover up to $600 in fees.

John Bowman, the Kentucky campaign coordinator for Dream.Org, completed his sentence on drug-related charges almost five years ago. He said he will be eligible for expungement in August, which he found out through one of the expungement clinics.

“People tend to look at you like a second class citizen,” Bowman said. “It's hard to get really meaningful employment. You can't volunteer for your kids. You can't be a chaperone on a field trip. You can't help with youth sports.”

Bowman said clearing the criminal records of people who have proven they can stay out of trouble will benefit entire communities. Several chambers of commerce and businesses, including the Kentucky Chamber and Greater Louisville Inc., also support of the legislation.

Hall, with Dream.org, said she hopes stakeholders on all sides of the issue will work together to make sure the proposal can succeed within Kentucky’s existing framework. Some judges and prosecutors have expressed concern that the bill would limit judicial discretion when granting or denying expungements. in making decisions.

“We're willing to work with the judges to figure this out. The formerly incarcerated community, folks that are advocating for this — we're really asking folks to come to the table to figure this out,” Hall said.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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