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South Carolina debating if it should be easier to expunge a brush with the law

By Cynthia Roldan, September 27, 2014

COLUMBIA – South Carolina lawmakers looking to expand the state’s expungement laws are finding themselves on the opposite side of law enforcement officials and crime victims advocates.

During a normally quiet time for the Legislature, a subcommittee of both senators and representatives has met here in recent weeks to talk about clarifying and potentially expanding how people can erase their past brushes with the law.

Currently, South Carolinians are eligible to have their criminal record expunged if: they have been found not guilty of a crime; had a charge discharged or dismissed; completed a series of rehab programs; or committed certain types of misdemeanors.

If approved, a person can have their record wiped off the books – as if it never happened.

The subcommittee’s work has stirred some concern. Both SLED Chief Mark Keel and Laura Hudson, executive director of the South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council, have warned the panel against expanding the state’s expungement laws.

 Despite speaking to each other at the subcommittee’s meetings, there appears to be a communication gap among those on both sides.

Subcommittee chair Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, said Wednesday that Keel and Hudson were simply worried about allowing for a blanket expungement expansion across the board for all offenses.

“That attitude that they have is a criminal mindset for offenders of just being hard on them,” Allen said. “I’m hoping that we can get (Hudson) to buy into first offenses and simple possession of drugs.”

But Hudson has been outspoken since the first meeting against any expansion – period. And after the first meeting, she said she was “very annoyed” lawmakers were not taking into account victims of crime; “that it’s all about some varmint.”

Her position has not changed since.

“I’ve been a little bit surprised at the vigor with which Sen. Allen and Rep. (Todd) Rutherford are trying to expand those expungements beyond everything we already have,” Hudson said on Wednesday. “I’d just be totally against that, and we’ll fight that down to the wire.”

Keel said Friday the state already offers nine possibilities to have a record expunged. Last year alone, the state processed nearly 85,000 expungements.

“There may be some clarifications that can be made of the expungement law,” Keel said. “But personally, I think we’ve got a pretty good system right now that allows a number of second chances for individuals who have charges.”

Keel added he also won’t support any statute or any change in statute that would allow expungement of a violent crime. Further, if the subcommittee produces legislation like one introduced a few years ago, the law enforcement community would not support it, he said.

The bill Keel is referring to is one that Rutherford, D-Columbia, sponsored. It sought to expand the state’s expungement laws and passed both chambers. But Hudson and Keel successfully lobbied against it when the House considered whether to override Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto.

This time, Rutherford said he plans to prepare a measure after the subcommittee finishes its report on Oct. 13. He also plans to pre-file legislation by the end of the year.

The committee, Rutherford said, is trying to reduce crime. When people are allowed a second chance by clearing their background of criminal offenses, they will have the opportunity to find a good job, and that reduces recidivism, he said.

“We need to create a workforce that is able to go to work and not have the burden of trying to feed their families and resorting to crime to do so,” Rutherford said. “Not allowing people second chances is not only un-American, it’s unChristian.”

Rutherford said businesses that come to South Carolina have said they have had a difficult time finding qualified workers. In other states where people’s records are expunged more often, employers have an incentive to stay because they have a larger qualified hiring pool, he said.

But having employers unaware of a potential employee’s criminal background worries Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association.

“I just think we have an obligation to protect the society,” Bruder said. “Our heartburn comes in with the expungement because it is an erasement of all records.”

Bruder echoed Keel and Hudson, adding giving a person a second chance should be up to the discretion of the employer.

Allen said he hopes the subcommittee can find the right criteria that would eliminate the worries of those who currently oppose expanding the state’s expungement laws.

“We have got to get them to look at the criminal justice system as a whole,” he said. “This whole notion was appropriate 10 years ago, when you just had zero tolerance, where you wanted to be hard on crime. (But) this allows light at the end of the tunnel.”

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