SHOULD THE state of South Carolina tell employers they can’t consider certain types of information when deciding who to hire?
Should the state rewrite history, erasing certain parts that it deems inappropriate for people to know about?
And if the state does either of those, how far should it go? How many bits of information, and which ones, should it forbid businesses from considering — and possibly even obliterate?
These are the questions that legislators and editorial writers and even the business community are breezily sweeping aside as they rush to embrace a sweeping bill to allow the obliteration of records of low-level criminals.
I think the answer should be no to those first two questions, but the voice of our state’s business community is the primary proponent of H.3209. So maybe we shouldn’t worry that the bill prohibits businesses from considering expunged crimes that they somehow find out about.
Maybe we should just worry about erasing history. Which is what expungement does. Expungement is not like a pardon, where the state restores any rights you lost and forgives you your crimes. Expungement means the state also forgets what you did. Removes all records of your crime from all official documents.
So if you get arrested later, the jury won’t know about it. The prosecutor might not even know about it.
If you decide to run for office one day, the voters won’t know about it. Unless the crime was reported in the news media when it was committed. In which case … what? Can you win a libel suit against the newspaper for reminding people of what it reported accurately when it happened?
It’s true that we’ve allowed certain criminal records to be erased for years. But never like this bill proposes.
Under current law, youthful offenders can get one conviction expunged. Ditto a lot of people convicted of drug crimes and people convicted of crimes that carry sentences of no more than 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. This bill would allow the expungement of two convictions. It also would allow multiple convictions “that are closely connected and arose out of the same incident” to be counted as one. Rep. Eddie Tallon, a retired SLED agent who is OK with that part of the bill but opposed other parts, cites as an example a juvenile who vandalizes mailboxes over several nights.
So now instead of merely being able to get his record erased for vandalizing one mailbox when he was 11, an applicant could get it erased for vandalizing a mailbox every night for two weeks. And, since he’s still a youthful offender, committing first-degree assault and battery five years later. As I read the bill, he also could apply for expungement for two separate series of drug crimes. And some minor crimes committed as an adult. But Rep. Tallon says that wasn’t the intent, and perhaps I’m misreading it.
The House Judiciary Committee added a section to the bill to allow anyone who receives a pardon for a non-violent crime to get the conviction expunged. And this, as Rep. Tallon told me, is where the bill wandered well past minor crimes, because a lot of crimes that most of us would consider violent are not defined that way in law. Fortunately, the House stripped out that provision before passing the bill unanimously and sending it to the Senate, where a subcommittee takes it up Tuesday morning.
The bill’s supporters say criminal records can prevent job seekers from being called in for an interview, so removing minor offenses from their records can improve their lives while helping businesses fill openings. “We believe that many offenders ought to have a second chance,” former Rep. Ted Pitts, now president of the state Chamber of Commerce, told The Associated Press.
I agree. The best way to keep former criminals from becoming future criminals is to get them employed, so it’s counter-productive for our society to put up barriers to jobs. And government should not prevent businesses from hiring the people they want to hire, except in the most extreme circumstances.
But government is not preventing businesses from hiring people with criminal records. That’s a decision businesses are making for themselves.
Their plea reminds me of people who support term limits. They essentially are screaming to the government: Stop us before we vote again for incumbents. Now the Chamber of Commerce is screaming: Stop us before we refuse to hire people with minor criminal records. Again.
If we are determined to use the power of government to stop businesses from doing this thing they have decided they should not do, it seems to me that there is a much better way to do it: Simply keep the part of the bill that prohibits businesses from considering certain crimes during the hiring process. Or, if we are determined to use the resources of the state to provide them a little more nuance, let people go through this expungement process, but instead of calling it an expungement — and treating it like an expungement — change the name to “make it illegal for businesses to consider this information.”
But preserve the information, so we will have it when people commit subsequent crimes. We will have it when people run for office. We will have history as it actually happened, rather than the way we wish it had happened.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.