Closing records doesn’t serve Hoosiers

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Well-intentioned legislators can pass flawed laws.

House Enrolled Act 1211 is an example.

The law, now in effect, will allow a Hoosier who has kept his or her nose clean for eight years after completing a sentence for a Class D nonviolent felony or misdemeanor conviction to petition a court to have records of the crime sealed from all but law enforcement agencies.

The law, authored by Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, is touted as the “Second Chance Act” – designed to help those with minor criminal records get past the stigma when seeking employment.

Reaching the goal of integrating those with criminal records back into society benefits the individual and the state because the inability to gain employment can push people back into criminal activity.

HSPA opposes the sealing of court and police records on principle as an attempt to rewrite history, particularly when the records closure is unlikely to accomplish the goal sought to benefit the state.

While an individual can successfully seal the public records of an arrest and conviction, the petition does not impact the private entities that routinely monitor court and police records as part of their attempt to build databases that can be used by employers to check the background of a job applicant.

H.E.A. 1211 says the successful petitioner “may legally state on an application for employment or any other document that the person has not been arrested for or convicted of the felony or misdemeanor recorded in the restricted records.”

When the petitioner relies on the law and says he has no criminal convictions, he will look like he is lying if the employer uses any one of a dozen companies that do background checks.

So the effectiveness of the law is dependent upon business owners not doing a background check.

The law also doesn’t address the most critical time for the convicted individual, which is immediately upon their release from prison.

If the individual hasn’t been able to develop a new employment history in eight years, the sealing of the arrest and conviction records isn’t going to cover a blank resume.

H.E.A. 1211 also doesn’t explain the legislative intent when it comes to restrictions on political office. Can an individual who has successfully sealed his previous felony conviction now run for state office?

What about state consideration of licenses that would normally take into account the criminal history of the applicant?

The House had originally changed Turner’s bill to urge the study of expungement of records by a summer interim committee of the legislature.

The change was made in the House Committee on Courts and Criminal Code, chaired by Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville.

Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indian­­­­apolis, changed the bill in the Senate back to its original form with a second reading amendment.

This means the language that was approved by both chambers did not get a committee hearing – the study committee language was what was considered in hearings where the public had the opportunity to speak.

The difficulty in gaining employment by those recently released from prison is a serious societal problem that the General Assembly should address.

Unfortunately, the solution agreed upon in the 2011 session will close court and police records and not help those in need until eight years down the road – and then only if the employer fails to do a serious background check.

I think the study committee would have reached the same conclusion and looked at other ways to tackle the issue – alternatives that didn’t include attempts to rewrite court and police history.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.