GOV. HENRY McMaster has told us a lot about his values with his veto pen: He told us that he doesn’t like tax increases, even one that nearly everybody in the state supported (the gas tax). He told us that he isn’t willing to sign laws that he believes violate the state constitution, even when they do things he supports (consolidation of Orangeburg County’s school districts).
His latest veto carries a similarly significant message: He doesn’t believe in erasing history.
It’s right there in the third paragraph of his latest veto message: “Criminal history, like all history, should not be erased.”
You wouldn’t think it would be easy to find responsible people who disagree. Who in the world, after all, would try to erase history? Besides despots and tyrants?
Turns out, nearly every member of the Legislature wants to erase history — and will do so as soon as today if they can override Mr. McMaster’s veto, which seems highly likely.
H.3209 passed the Senate 38-2 and the House 83-13 — margins well beyond the two-thirds needed to turn the bill into law over a governor’s objection. (The House originally passed the bill 103-0, but some representatives balked at some changes the Senate made.)
The legislation expands the already-too-large number of people who can have their criminal records wiped clean. I’m not talking about pardoning people for their crimes. I’m talking about erasing all official acknowledgment that they were ever arrested, tried or convicted.
Currently, people can have their records erased, or expunged, for a single first-offense conviction of most crimes that carry a sentence of 30 days or less and some first-offense criminal domestic violence charges. The bill eliminates the “first-time” and “one-time” requirements, allowing people to have multiple offenses expunged if they are “closely connected.”
The bill does allow police to access that hidden information under limited circumstances. But that doesn’t do much good to a homeowner who might like to know that the man who just moved in next door was convicted of possession with intent to distribute meth. Or the parents who might like to know that the new babysitter was convicted of breaking into several houses. Or the business owner who checks the criminal record of a potential employee and finds no mention of all those vandalism convictions. Or the prosecutor who is trying a case against a defendant whose previous convictions have been wiped away. Or the voters who are deciding whether to elect the candidate whose criminal history no longer exists. Even though he was once convicted of crimes.
The traditional motivation for expungement has been to make it easier for people to build a productive life once they’ve done their time. That’s a very smart goal.
But the South Carolina Legislature is not given to the bleeding-heart arguments that drive such “see no evil, hear no evil” policies. What the South Carolina Legislature IS given to is doing the bidding of the powerful S.C. Chamber of Commerce, voice of the business community, keeper of the scorecard that determines who gets endorsements and campaign donations and who doesn’t. And the chamber doesn’t just support erasing some people’s criminal history. It made legislation to “Expand policies aimed at reintegrating ex-offenders into the workforce” one of its eight priorities for this year’s legislative session.
Chamber CEO Ted Pitts told me earlier this year that businesses need more workers, and the chamber had concluded that “there ought to be a way for citizens to get a second chance.”
Of course there should be, I told him. And I applaud your members for being willing to hire people who committed crimes, served their sentences and are trying to lead honest, productive lives. But if businesses want so desperately to give a second chance to people with criminal records, I ask, couldn’t they just … give a second chance to people with criminal records? Why must the government obliterate all evidence that the crimes ever occurred?
“It’s an attempt to reach out to a segment of society that needs a second chance,” he answered, as though I had asked him to speak more loudly, rather than to explain his nonsensical argument. And in so doing he only made it more nonsensical.
One clue as to why businesses would want to be denied information about potential employees is hidden near the end of the bill, in a section that promises: “No information related to an expungement shall be used or introduced as evidence in any administrative or legal proceeding involving negligent hiring, negligent retention, or similar claims.”
Of course, the Legislature could give businesses that sort of protection from liability without erasing history. Erasing history means the public won’t know if that employee who committed some awful crime turned out have a criminal record. So what the bill actually does is protect businesses from public backlash if their decisions to give people a second chance go bad.
In his veto message, Mr. McMaster endorsed the idea of helping convicts get jobs and offered to work with the Legislature to find a way to do that. Just not this way.
“Second chances should be freely given when individuals have paid their debt to society,” he wrote, “however, forgiveness should be informed by fact and should not be forced upon unwitting participants and prospective employers.”
And it shouldn’t come at the steep cost of depriving all of us of a true accounting of, well, of history.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.