ATLANTA — A bill that would broaden the number of cases in which criminal records can be sealed may open a larger conversation about expungement in the state, lawmakers said.
Legislation, known as Senate Bill 288, introduced by Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, earlier this month, would add a wide variety of criminal justice cases that could qualify for expungement.
Ten years after individuals are convicted of a felony and served their sentences — including paying any fines or fees — the bill would allow the possibility of having their criminal records sealed. Individuals who were convicted of an offense and given any other sentence than the death penalty but had their case reversed through the Court of Appeals could also get their records sealed.
Scenarios in the bill would also include expungement for youth offenders convicted of a state misdemeanor who completed their sentences and were not arrested in the five years post completion or an individual who successfully completed a drug rehabilitation program without being arrested during that program.
At the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s Legislative Breakfast Thursday, Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, said while the bill may not move far, it opens up a larger conversation about expungement laws in Georgia.
“We need to decide what we want to do with a record,” McLaurin said.
McLaurin sits on three House committees including the Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, which oversees the state’s criminal code and procedures.
More than one-third of Georgians have a criminal record, according to the Georgia Justice Project — that’s 4.2 million people who are required to list a past criminal conviction on applications for various things such as education and employment.
The Legal Action Center — a national nonprofit law and policy organization — has listed Georgia as the second-worst state in the country when it comes to roadblocks to reintegration into society following an arrest or conviction.
Anderson’s wide-reaching bill, McLaurin said, tries to address the issue.
Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, chair of the Special Judiciary Committee, said individuals with criminal records are often discriminated against — even if they were ultimately not convicted.
“If you’re arrested and your employer finds out about it,” she said, “you’re probably not going to get the job, even if you didn’t do anything wrong.”
Lawmakers did not deny the fact that knowing about past criminal records is in the interest of public safety. It is important to know the criminal record of individuals who, for example, work around children, McLaurin said.
It’s a balance between what the public wants to know, Jordan said, and what the public needs to know.
“I do think that probably Sen. Anderson’s point was to start the conversation,” she said.
Anderson’s bill does include a list of offenses that do not qualify for expungement, including various crimes against minors — child molestation, enticement, among others — and various other sexual crimes — including pimping, pandering and sexual battery.
Tom Clyde, a partner at the law firm Kilpatrick Townsend and a media lawyer, warned broad expungement could lead down a dangerous path that would not only seal criminal records, but the actions of police and prosecutors.
During the past five years, Clyde, who is a also a member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation board of directors, said expungement has gotten wider — that means the public and the media cannot access some police records, court records or records maintained by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
“The net effect of that is the entire activity by police and prosecutors,” he said, “ends up sealed and away from the public.”