Politics

Kentuckians with certain Class D felonies would be able to clear their criminal records under a bill that the state Senate Judiciary Committee approved on Thursday.

The legislation would create a process whereby people with Class D felonies could file to have their judgments vacated five years after completing their sentences.

Russell Coleman, spokesman for the Kentucky Smart on Crime coalition, said the legislation would help reduce cost burdens on the state.

“We have to take a look at what we’re doing to tweak, to reform, to try to get better outcomes and cost savings out of the criminal justice system,” Coleman said.

Earlier this session, the state House approved a version of the bill that would allow those who completed sentences for Class D felonies to have their records expunged — removing their arrests and convictions from state records. This version would essentially reopen their cases and change the final outcome.

Although versions of the legislation have passed the Democratic-controlled state House for years, the Republican-led Senate has been reluctant to take up the issue.

On Thursday, Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, called expungement “legal fiction” and said the new process would provide consistency.

“In my opinion, it gives protection for the individual who employs, and it also allows the individual who would be the applicant to truthfully answer that application,” Stivers said.

Stivers argued that under expungement, job applicants wouldn’t be able to truthfully say they’ve never been convicted of a felony, and certain employers would be at risk if they unwittingly hire someone with a cleared felony conviction.

Kentuckians whose sentences are vacated would also be able to apply to vote and own a gun again under the proposal, Stivers said.

“This would actually, in my opinion, totally clear your record,” he said.

The new process would apply to about 60 Class D convictions, including first degree possession of a controlled substance, possession of a forged instrument, receiving stolen property under $10,000 and flagrant nonsupport.

Under the bill, those who had completed their sentences and waited five years could file a motion in the court where they were tried to vacate judgments. Criminal records would still be held by the Administrative Office of the Courts to ensure those who reoffend wouldn’t be given the same opportunity again.

Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said the bill would help meet Kentucky’s growing demand for skilled workers.

“There is not only a shortage of workers for certain types of jobs, but there’s also the skills gap,” he said. “People might be available, but they don’t have the skills for the job the employer needs. And that’s only going to get worse the next few years.”

Several Republican members of the committee expressed skepticism of the bill, saying the waiting period between completing a sentence and vacating a judgment should be longer.

Sen. John Schickel, a Republican from Union, said he’s warmed up to the issue over the years. But, he said, employers have a right to know whether job applicants have a felony conviction on their records.

“The truly small-business people, from my experience, do want to have this information, and I think have a right to have it,” Schickel said.

Sen. Robin Webb, a Democrat from Grayson, said a 10-year waiting period would be too long considering many Class D felony sentences include multi-year probation.

“That could be quite a long time if someone actually received jail time and a five-year probation period,” Webb said.

The bill now heads to the full Senate for a vote. If that chamber approves the measure, the House would have to concur with the changes before the legislation heads to the governor’s desk. Gov. Matt Bevin has voiced support for felony expungement generally in the past.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.