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A better proposal

Though well intentioned, Indiana legislators’ efforts in 2011 to help otherwise law-abiding Hoosiers get jobs by hiding records of an old criminal conviction were flawed. They resulted in a law that gives such offenders permission to lie on job applications and creates two sets of books, one open to the public, another open to law enforcement and court personnel.

Now, their attempts to fix some of the most obnoxious portions of that law are heading in the right direction, though the state’s prosecutors appear to have the better remedy.

What they did: In 2011, the Indiana General Assembly adopted a law that allows people convicted of a misdemeanor or a least-severe felony to petition the court to seal their conviction if they have maintained a clean record for eight years. The motivation was sound: Reformed criminals are haunted by convictions that make it difficult to get jobs.

The conviction still exists, as far as the courts and police are concerned. But the public – including prospective employers – does not have access to the records. And the law specifically gives affected people the legal right to lie on job applications when asked about criminal records. Appalling.

In addition to being bad policy, the law sets up a record-keeping nightmare for court clerks and other officials.

The new plan: House Bill 1482 – which the House passed and which was passed Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee (advancing to the full Senate) – would fix one of the most noxious elements of the law by allowing all eligible ex-offenders to have their criminal record erased if they remain law-abiding for 10 years. This would eliminate the problem of the two sets of records, which provides dishonest information to the public.

But unlike the 2011 law, which requires criminals to petition the court, all eligible ex-offenders would have their record expunged automatically. Society would most likely be better served if they had to present their case to have their record expunged to a judge.

Given the vast number of databases that track myriad public information, information about a conviction will not disappear entirely. And what about candidates for office? Shouldn’t voters have the right to know about a conviction, even if it has been expunged?

The better plan: The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council has a reasonable and fair proposal. It would serve both the public’s right to know and the ex-criminal trying to gain employment. The prosecutors proposed marking the appropriate records as “expunged” in a legal sense but permitting the dated court records to remain public. The conviction is eliminated from their record without trying to change the past by denying it happened.

This gives the transparency the public deserves: Yes, John Doe was convicted of writing a bad check 11 years ago but hasn’t had any convictions since, so the court has removed this conviction from his record. It would open to civil lawsuits prospective employers who use expunged records to deny someone a job.

The prosecutors are also rightly concerned because the current proposal would allow people with multiple offenses to have their record expunged, while the intent of the law is to allow people who made a mistake years ago to get another chance.

The 2011 law needs to be overhauled. The current wording of a bill to make changes is a good step, but the prosecutors’ council has the best proposal, one legislators should adopt.