For nearly four hours Wednesday, a joint S.C. legislative committee heard passionate debate from advocates on all sides of this question: When can someone with a criminal record get that record expunged or sealed?
“Seventy percent of all criminals are recidivist offenders,” SLED Chief Mark Keel told the lawmakers, explaining that it’s important for law officers, businesses and the general public to know who has a serious criminal past. “If you continue to expand expungement – who are you really protecting?”
But the panel at the Senate Office Building also heard pleas from former felons who’ve gone straight, have families, lead exemplary lives and who find themselves disqualified from better jobs because of a long-ago offense.
“What about the 30 percent of us who are doing a good job, and out here doing the right thing?” said Jerry Blassingame, who served prison time in the 1990s for a drug charge and went on to found a Greenville business he said now employs hundreds of people.
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Keel and Blassingame were just two of 27 varied speakers at the hearing, which chairman Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, called “one of the most enlightening meetings” he’s been at since arriving in the General Assembly in 2000.
The most divergent points of view were offered by longtime victims’ rights advocate Laura Hudson, whose statements contrasted with those by Patricia Littlejohn, executive director of the S.C. Center for Fathers and Families.
“Don’t forget the victims,” Hudson told panel members, saying she opposes expanding the state’s current expungement law any further. Then, speaking of criminals, she quoted the Bible, saying, “By their fruits you shall know them.”
Asked by Allen if she believed in rehabilitation, Hudson said, “That’s a theological question.”
Littlejohn, speaking for ex-convicts who are trying to go straight and provide support for their families, said, “Many want to provide for their children but can’t because of their inability to gain employment. Having a criminal record is a major barrier.”
Levity was provided by Sen. Tom Corbin, R-Greenville, who told the people advocating for more expungement that one reason they couldn’t get jobs is because of all the illegal immigrants crossing the border. “We don’t know what they’ve done in the past, but they get a lot of jobs,” he said.
Corbin also raised eyebrows when he spoke to one woman who testified about how her jail mugshots had caused her terrible problems. “You are a very attractive woman,” Corbin said. “I don’t think you could take a bad picture.”
Other issues associated with expungement included what kinds of additional crimes should be eligible to be expunged, the often complex and expensive process of getting a record expunged, the question of how long a conviction should remain on the public record and what kinds of achievements a person seeking expungement should have.
“Time is a very good judge of character,” said 3rd Circuit Solicitor Ernest Finney III, urging that deserving ex-cons should get a clean slate.
S.C. Press Association executive director Bill Rogers also spoke, urging the panel not to censor police incident reports, which are not the kind of judicial records now subject to expungement.
Allen said his panel hopes to come up with a list of specific expungement items to be addressed with a broad-based bill when the Legislature returns in January.
Allen said he hopes to issue a report by Oct. 13 or a little after. But Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, said that due to the issue’s complexity, that goal is unrealistic. Another committee meeting is scheduled for Sept. 9.
“You need to make sure that the community is protected from people who’ve been convicted of certain types of offenses, but there are other offenses – we need to make sure the people in those situations can have hope in the future,” Thurmond said.