FRANKFORT (AP) — For 27 years after his felony conviction for stealing car radios, West Powell became accustomed to bad news: getting fired from his job, or worrying about a background check in his degree program.
But Monday, the 45-year-old got some good news when a photo popped up on his phone showing a judge had signed an order clearing his record. From now on, his criminal past won’t show up on background checks, and he does not have to disclose it on job applications.
“I can finally close that chapter, that ugly little thing there and, you know, go forward,” Powell said. “I’m waiting for that final paperwork to come and I’m going to frame it and put it up on the wall.”
Powell is one of the first people to take advantage of Kentucky’s new felony expungement law, which went into effect on Friday. It was fitting, since Powell is one of the reasons the law passed the state legislature after years of trying. It was Powell’s emotional testimony before a state legislative committee in 2015 that convinced Senate Judiciary chairman Whitney Westerfield to change his mind and support the bill.
“Not all of us know everything in the world when we get these jobs. We get up here and we learn the world is a lot bigger than we thought it was,” Westerfield said.
Now Powell says he is trying to help others like him. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration featured him in an online video, released Monday, detailing how people can apply to have their records expunged. To be eligible, people must wait at least five years after they complete their sentence. They cannot have multiple convictions or any other pending charges.
Just 61 of the more than 300 class D felonies are eligible to be expunged, including convictions for theft and possession of illegal drugs. But state officials say those felonies account for 71 percent of felony convictions in the past five years.
People seeking expungement must first request a “certificate of eligibility” from the Kentucky State Police, a process that takes between four to six months but was expedited in Powell’s case. Once deemed eligible, people have to file additional paperwork in the court where the conviction was handed down. The forms are available online at courts.ky.gov/expungement.
If the prosecutor does not object, the judge can grant the expungement without a hearing.
Powell has gone back to school to become a physical therapist. He was worried about passing a background check required for his clinical rotations when he agreed to testify before a joint legislative committee last year. Westerfield said he was so moved by Powell’s plight that he agreed to support the bill on the spot. It passed the legislature this spring with bipartisan support.
Now, Powell said background checks don’t scare him.
“To go from being so frustrated and that there is nothing on the books to help someone like me to where we are at now, it’s just, wow,” Powell said. “One mistake? People shouldn’t suffer their whole life for that.”