Expungement Can Have Community Benefits – If Used Appropriately

9522883-gavel-and-sound-blockEven the Indian legislature deserves a second chance.

Last session, the Indiana legislature drastically expanded its citizens’ options to expunge their own criminal records. The measure, known as the Second Chance Law, was signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence and took effect in July. So, as of now, it’s effects are not yet clear. Under the measure there are certain crimes that cannot be expunged, including murder, rape, sexual molestation and human trafficking. Some other more serious felonies need consent of the prosecutor. But, under the measure, old nonviolent, low-level felonies and misdemeanors can be expunged automatically.

Those in support of the measure argued that those whose employment opportunities are restricted due to old offenses on their record, are punished long after their debt to society is paid. On the other hand, there are some uneasy rumblings from the legal community.

At last week’s special Fort Wayne City Council session on the number of killings, Jonathan Ray and Andre Patterson said the new expungement law is a valuable tool in their work to help unemployed black males seek jobs and build stable families.  Chairman of the Fort Wayne Commission on the Social Status of African American Males, had had community meetings to advise people about how to use the new law to remove old convictions, which may always pose a new problem for job-seekers. “Felonies and misdemeanors are roadblocks,” Ray, director of the Fort Wayne Urban League, told the council Wednesday night. “Expungements take away an impairment for somebody who wants to work.”

But, in some cases, the complicated new law takes away the ability of victims, prosecutors and judges to influence whether a certain case should be banished from legal memory.

Marion County Prosecutor Steve Sonnega has filed a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the law, pointing out that conviction in a child-molestation case may be expunged without challenge because the charge was battery, a D-category felony that qualifies for automatic expungement as long as the petitioner meets certain criteria. “That basically makes the concerns and input of victims meaningless,” he told The Indianapolis Star.

St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak told the South Bend Tribune’s Madeline Buckley that he believes the expungement law should always allow for some discretion.

“It ought to be done on a case-by-case basis, not one size fits all,” Dvorak said. The problem, he said, “would simply be cured by changing the ‘shall’ provision to a ‘may’ provision.”