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April 22, 2019 9:27am

Kentucky must make expungement easier. Our economy depends on it

Workforce has become a major pain point for businesses in recent years. Meanwhile, there are tens of thousands of Kentuckians who are unable to make a decent living because they cannot get a job or earn a professional license due to mistakes that may have occurred decades ago.

Our economy needs them. That’s why Senate Bill 57, sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Higdon, was such a major win during the most recent legislative session.

By increasing eligibility for expungement and lowering application fees, this bill is not only a step toward better jobs and a more competitive workforce, but it also will give a whole generation of families an equitable future with life-changing opportunities.

Passage of SB 57 was one of Greater Louisville Inc.’s top legislative priorities for 2019. Our members have long recognized how important expungement is to workforce participation.

GLI was the first business organization in the state to back Class D felony expungement. In 2016, we proudly championed House Bill 40, which first brought Class D felony expungement to Kentucky and has since led to more than 3,000 successful expungement applications.

To improve upon HB 40 and further increase access to expungement, we worked closely with Higdon to give feedback on drafts of SB 57 and bring the ideas of our members and community partners to the table. Throughout the 2019 session, we aggressively advocated for its passage. Like many in our community, we were thrilled to see the bill signed into law.

With the 2019 session officially over, it’s time to start thinking about next steps.

New research on the positive effects of expungement underscores the importance of continuing to move forward on this issue. A recent study found that expungement not only improves an individual’s chances of finding employment but also leads to better jobs and increased wages. In Michigan, for example, the study showed that successful applicants saw their wages increase, on average, 25 percent within two years of expungement.

In addition, for those who remain skeptical of expungement, this same study also proved that expungement recipients are far less likely to commit a crime than the general population. Simply put, this is smart public policy that could help — by our initial estimates — up to 180,000 individuals in Kentucky and support the development of our regional workforce.

With these benefits in mind, what else can we do to improve the effectiveness of expungement in the commonwealth?

Make expungement automatic

One next step should be to make the expungement of acquittals and dismissals automatic. Though these types of records form less of a barrier to workforce participation than a Class D felony, they are harmful, nonetheless. Several states have already moved in this direction, and there was even legislation in Kentucky this session that proposed this very thing.

Shorten wait periods and lower application fees

Under current law, Class D felonies and misdemeanors require five-year wait periods before becoming eligible for expungement. Other states have begun lowering these wait periods, thereby allowing many eligible applicants to obtain the benefits of expungement sooner. We must also continue evaluating how application fees limit access to expungement.

SB 57 took a huge step in the right direction on this issue by lowering total application fees from $540 to $340 and allowing for applicants to pay the fees in an installment plan. This brought us much closer into line with surrounding states, but for many eligible individuals these fees will remain a steep hill to climb.

Pass bail reform

Bail reform should also be a part of this conversation. This year, lawmakers failed to advance House Bill 94, which would have placed restrictions on the use of monetary bail to ensure that Kentuckians are not being incarcerated simply because of their financial status.

This allows individuals to continue working while they await their day in court, which means less disruption in the workplace. Bail reform needs to be a focal point in 2020.

As I write, Kentucky has the seventh lowest workforce participation rate in the country, now spends an estimated $700 million per year on corrections and has the ninth highest incarceration rate in the country. These trends are all interconnected and are all harmful to economic growth. To help reverse them, Kentucky lawmakers need to continue acting on bold reform proposals, just as they have done before with legislation like HB 40 and SB 57. In doing so, they can count on the full support of the Greater Louisville business community.