Local and State News

Lawmakers Could Expand Expungement of Criminal Records

By Eva Moore
Wednesday, September 3, 2014

How far should the state of South Carolina go to give accused criminals a second chance?

About 30 percent of state residents have a criminal record of some sort, according to Chelsea Clark, a law clerk with the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families who spoke to a subcommittee of state lawmakers Aug. 27.

Other recent research from the University of South Carolina shows almost half of black males and almost 40 percent of white males in the U.S. have been arrested by age 23.

And even a nonviolent offense committed years earlier can follow a person for years.

“They may not be eligible for scholarships or loans,” Clark said. “Landlords look at criminal records; employers look at criminal records — especially big corporations will just knock you out of the box entirely because they have other qualified candidates. These people get shunted aside.”

“It’s an unpayable debt,” said Jerry Cue, who cofounded Columbia-based Project NAS (Not A Statistic), which works with ex-offenders.

A group of state lawmakers is trying once again to expand the type of crimes that can be removed from a person’s record.

But the project faces long odds, with law enforcement objecting and the governor already having vetoed a similar effort.

Under current South Carolina law, people who’ve committed certain minor, nonviolent crimes can have the crime removed from their record.

The State Law Enforcement Division processed more than 84,000 expungements last year. Still, those who’ve gone through the process say it’s complicated and bureaucratic.

The last time lawmakers passed an expungement bill, in 2012, Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed it, saying the list of eligible offenses was too broad, and the law would undermine the usefulness of criminal background checks, “allowing many to hide their past transgressions.”

So this time around, lawmakers are trying to bring in more stakeholders early in the process.

But Mark Keel, chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, made it clear he doesn’t want more crimes eligible for expungement.

“Seventy percent of criminals are recidivist offenders,” Keel told lawmakers. “If we continue to expand expungement for offenders, who are we really protecting? I urge you to consider the unintended consequences of broad legislation.”

Keel said he would support clarifying some laws, such as how an expungement for writing bad checks is handled. Often, bad checks come in clumps, and each check can carry a separate charge — but generally only one charge can be expunged.

Keel’s position was echoed by the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association and solicitors across the state.

As for crime victims — well, Laura Hudson, head of the South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council was vociferous, just as she was against the 2012 bill.

“I believe that’s the first time I’ve heard that word today, ‘victims,’” she said when a senator announced the name of her group. “Crime victims are concerned about any expansion of expungement of records. Enough expungement is available now.”

“Typically, convictions are a result of massive plead-downs,” Hudson added. “So a person who’s received an expungement for a nonviolent offense may have been charged with a violent offense.”

She left lawmakers with a bit of a threat ringing in their ears. “I can only imagine the anger and frustration that will be directed at this state and General Assembly when an offender that’s had their record expunged reoffends and the court finds out.”

Though most members of the subcommittee seem united in their efforts to reform current laws, Sen. Tom Corbin, a Greenville Republican, tried to place the blame elsewhere — on illegal immigrants who he says are making it difficult for American ex-offenders to get jobs.

“I wonder if you’re looking at the broader picture,” Corbin told one supporter of expungement reform. “We are in the worst recession. … That, coupled with the huge influx of illegal aliens. You might want to refocus some of your attention to trying to solve some of those problems.”

Later, Corbin tried to soothe a woman testifying to the damage done by mugshots that can circulate on the Internet for years, even if charges are dropped.

“I think you’re a very attractive woman,” he said. “I don’t think you could take a bad picture.”

Sen. Karl Allen, a Greenville Democrat and key architect of the current bill, told Free Times later that the committee will meet three or four more times over the next month or so to craft a bill that most stakeholders can live with. He also made it clear he’s committed to expanding expungement, not just clarifying the law.

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