Expungement: Helping People Move On

BeaconTN.org | 

Most of us will sympathize with folks who have experienced certain rough spells in their life, those moments in time that they would just as soon forget. This is true even when those spells involved poor life choices and misbehavior. Everyone makes mistakes. However, for some people, their past mistakes culminated in a criminal record, which means that their past will invariably haunt their future, regardless of whether they have successfully turned their lives around.

Tennessee law allows for the expungement—or clearing of the record—of certain low level offenses. However, if an individual has two or more low level convictions that would otherwise qualify for expungement, he or she remains destined to wear their criminal history like a scarlet “A” for life.  This is because, in Tennessee, an individual is allowed only one conviction to qualify for expungement. The House of Representatives recently passed HB873, which would allow an individual to petition the court for the expungement of two qualifying offenses.  The companion bill, SB800, is currently awaiting a vote by the full Senate. Important to note, this legislation will not expand the universe of offenses to qualify for expungement, but simply captures additional ex-low level offenders who may have two convictions for offenses that would otherwise qualify for expungement. Further, they would still have to wait at least five years and prove that they have turned away from a life of crime before being eligible.

This is a positive policy reform that will create more employment opportunities for more ex-low level offenders who are back on the straight and narrow, and since ex-offenders who are employed are three times less likely to re-offend, it is also a policy that protects the public safety of Tennesseans.

Understandably, skeptics of this proposed legislation have some concerns about the potential for the expansion of expungement to include additional qualifying offenses, potentially violent offenses. That is a fair concern, and public safety must be the bedrock for any responsible criminal justice reform. However, mitigating against such concern is the fact that the state’s expungement procedures include safeguards that afford district attorneys both notice of a pending petition for expungement and the opportunity to respond with objections or concerns. Further, the judge always retains the discretion to deny a petition for expungement of a criminal conviction.

It is important that the General Assembly continue to take positive steps toward removing unnecessary barriers that hamper the efforts of ex-offenders to become employed, productive, and taxpaying members of society. Certainly, affording an ex-low level offender the opportunity to expunge two qualifying offenses is yet another step toward effective criminal justice reform.

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