Beyond the political games, why felony expungement is a good idea

Nov 5, 2014 at 3:01 pm

Led by Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky politicians are earnestly discussing easing the path to civil rights restoration for convicted felons. Democratic politicians seek to gain more voters because they assume that the majority of convicted felons would vote Democratic. Republicans, like Paul, view restoring voting rights as a move that would reach out to minority communities in an effort to broaden the Republican Party. Unfortunately, these well-meaning proposals (albeit with ulterior motives) do not address the real problem facing convicted felons: the ability to find meaningful employment and advance in a satisfying career.

As a criminal defense attorney, I field several calls a week about felony expungements. I have had one call in my legal career concerning restoration of voting rights. Expungement permits the conviction, the arrest record, the jail record and all other associated documents to be purged. Felony expungement would permit previously convicted individuals to legally claim they were not arrested or convicted. If you want to make a true difference in the lives of convicted felons, expungement is the route to a real second chance. This would be life-changing legislation. In my view, we must permit many of our convicted felons to expunge their records.  

Kentucky should permit low-level (Class C and Class D felonies) nonviolent and non-sex offender felons to expunge the conviction five years after the sentence is completed if the individual has not been convicted of either another felony offense or a misdemeanor offense involving violence or moral turpitude (e.g., theft). Expungement is consistent with the most important goal of our criminal justice system: reforming behavior. Many of our fellow citizens, friends and family members make poor choices, whether because of mental illness, drug abuse, alcohol abuse or just a period of recalcitrant behavior. Our hope and prayer for them is that they reform their lives.  

To maximize their opportunity to reform their lives, we must give many of our convicted felons the opportunity to earn back their good names and their ability to obtain meaningful employment. Every day, I hear from convicted felon clients about how difficult and overwhelming it is with a criminal history to find a good job. It is easy for the rest of us to sit back in our armchairs and say, “Well, you should have thought of that before you committed your crime.” The reality is that many did not think — or if they did think, it was in an alcohol- or drug-induced fog. But, upon our sober reflection, we as a society are much better if our fellow citizens do have a chance to move beyond their criminal pasts after they have completed their sentences.  

Would society not benefit if reformed criminals could find meaningful jobs? Is it not better for us if they are contributing to society rather than living on the margins of society, draining taxpayer-funded safety nets? Is it not better for us if they could earn a wage to support a family and we could encourage strong, stable families rather than an ever-increasing government nanny state? Is it not better to give people more opportunities to earn an honest wage rather than face financial pressure that could lead them back into crime? Is it not better for people to work toward a positive future rather than always look back at a past mistake?

The legitimate needs of law enforcement can also be accommodated through the expungement process. Law enforcement agencies should be permitted to maintain their files under seal in the event the beneficiaries of expungement commit future crimes. Prosecutors and judges should be able to consider these expunged felonies in the unfortunate event there are future criminal charges. But, there must be a point where the rest of us no longer need to label our fellow citizens.  

The belief that people can change is fundamental to Christianity. Jesus said, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone …” (John 8.9). Jesus, in forgiving, went on to say, “Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more” (John 8.11). In the age of the Internet and instant record checks, we can never really forgive someone if we do not let them earn the right to expungement by proving their good conduct after they have completed their sentence. 


Brian Butler is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and Notre Dame Law School.  He is a former United States Navy J.A.G., Assistant Commonwealth and Assistant United States Attorney. Currently, he is an attorney in private practice in Louisville.