Lawmakers consider changes to criminal records expungement process

The South Carolina StatehouseGrace Beahm/Staff

COLUMBIA - Lawmakers spent more than three hours on Wednesday listening to pleas from folks who are for and against streamlining - and potentially expanding - the criminal records expungement process.

The expungement study committee, composed of senators and representatives, is tasked with creating a report by Oct. 13 that takes into consideration the concerns of the more than 20 speakers who addressed them. Most of the speakers, however, argued the laws in South Carolina make it unbearable to navigate through the expungement process, hindering people's ability to find good jobs.

In South Carolina, those who have been found not guilty of a charge, had a charge discharged or dismissed, completed a series of rehab programs, or committed a misdemeanor that qualifies, can have their criminal record expunged. The expungement process erases the record from background checks. It's as if the arrest never happened.

Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said the problem of criminal records is an issue that comes up "over and over again." She said that full rehabilitation of a previous offender is difficult when a criminal record trails him.

"It makes it really impossible for someone to go back into society," Berkowitz said. "We recognize what a barrier having this record is to getting back into society and being able to get a job."

Sumter County Solicitor Ernest "Chip" Finney said criminal records could prevent people who committed offenses 10 or 15 years ago from working on a military base through a third party company installing carpets, for example, because of heightened security measures.

"I understand that there are good hardworking people out there who are trying to get things cleaned up," Finney said.

But not everyone felt the system needed reform to expand or broaden the expungement process. SLED Chief Mark Keel said the agency processed more than 84,000 expungements during fiscal year 2013-14.

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

Keel told lawmakers his mind was not closed to expansion, but he said new legislation must be drafted carefully. He acknowledged there were some ambiguities in the statutes when it comes to expungement, and said the law enforcement community is aware certain issues must be addressed.

Laura Hudson, executive director of the South Carolina Crime Victims' Council, said she was in favor of lawmakers clarifying and consolidating statutes, but was much more aggressive when speaking of expanding the expungement process to encompass other non-violent felonies.

She warned lawmakers that more than 70 percent of offenders break the law again. She warned lawmakers of the potential downsides for employers if staffers commit a crime a second time, unaware that a first incident even took place. She argued that the safety of the law enforcement community also is at risk, when police officers don't know the past history of people they're interacting with.

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"I'm very annoyed that the victims are not being considered; that it's all about some varmint," said Hudson after the hearing. "I can't understand why we have all of this breath being wasted on people who have proven they will not follow the law."

Hudson also argued in favor of addressing laws that mask how often a person has committed domestic violence. Her comments on domestic violence come just days after The Post and Courier ended a five-day series on the seriousness of the problem in South Carolina.

"The CDV is probably one of the unique examples of escalation that if we as a state can intervene in an appropriate manner, we might be able to save somebody's life," Hudson said. "We have an opportunity to stop that violence, but if we're going to mask the amount of time that they're doing it, and purposely keep the public from knowing anything about that and from protecting the crime victim, then we're inviting people to keep on doing it."

Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, said he believes it is a challenge for people with criminal records to find jobs. He said he hopes the panel can strike a balance while taking into account the different factors that could give offenders the opportunity to clear their records.

"We have to figure out how we can allow people to pay their debt to society that were not convicted of serious and violent offenses, ultimately be able to get back into the community without a mark that prohibits them from having success."

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.