Expungement laws need no changes

A former lawbreaker who was guilty of marijuana and cocaine possession and a car theft  over two decades  ago asked lawmakers to pass a bill to wipe out his crimes. The actual legislation, sponsored by Senator Harold Metts (D-Providence), would allow expungement of multiple crimes, including extortion, witness tampering, and assault with a dangerous weapon if the offense occurred more than 20 years ago. This is a bad idea—the law should stay as it is.
Right now, a single non-violent offense can be expunged from the record of a first-time offender five years after he or she completes the sentence, or 10 years after the end of a sentence in the case of a felony. The present law was used to remove 4198 records from public scrutiny in 2012 alone, according to a study done by the Providence Journal. In total, 52,507 records have been wiped clean since 2008.  Enough already!
The proposals to extend expungement are a giant con game. Senator Dawson Hodgson had it right when he stated that the General Assembly would be creating a legal fiction that allows even more convicted criminals to assert to prospective employers that they have never been convicted. The fact is, employers should know the background and the adult record of an applicant who is not a first-time offender. Juvenile records are sealed for offenses committed before age 18 because of the “immature mind” that might have precipitated the action.  Adults, however, have to be held accountable for crimes committed not once, but at least twice.
The broadness of the legislation makes a mockery of background checks for applicants to certain jobs. These positions usually involve law enforcement, or work with senior citizens or children. Similarly, some jobs require employees to handle money or act in a fiduciary relationship. An employer has every right to know how applicants have dealt with these issues in the past. The mere passage of time doesn’t lead to reform. It may be that the applicant was not in a position to pilfer funds in the interim.
Rhode Island is in the minority for allowing expungement of an adult offense—the state is already over-solicitous. Presumably, the Metts bill would help a lot of miscreant politicians who are in the hoosegow for white-collar crimes. If this legislation passes it will be due to some legislators’ coziness with their former colleagues.
Ironically, the Providence Journal story of the ex-felon testifying for a broader expungement law documented that the man had a job at the Rhode Island Convention Center, so he obviously wasn’t barred from work. In fact, he probably has a leg-up on people who have their noses clean, since many of those jobs have a well-connected person vouching for you.  The media has also reported about   a state law that allows a tax break to employees who hire ex-felons, giving another boost to ex-convicts over somebody who has never caused trouble.
The fact is that employers have rights, too, not the least of which should be the right to know who they are hiring. Using deception to accord special favors to violators of the law—at the risk of employers and their businesses—is not the way to attract job creators to Rhode Island.


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