FRANKFORT (AP) — Legislation touted as giving some nonviolent felons a second chance by letting them seek to have their criminal records erased cleared a major hurdle Tuesday, passing the Republican-led Kentucky Senate.
The Senate revised the bill, inserting language that would force eligible offenders to wait five years once serving out their sentences, including parole, before requesting to have their criminal records expunged.
“We are a country of second chances,” Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, said in supporting the bill.
The perennial proposal is just one step away from clearing the General Assembly if the Democratic-controlled House accepts the Senate changes in the final days of this year’s legislative session.
Later, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin praised the Senate’s action on the legislation and said he looked forward to signing it into law if it reaches his desk.
“A lot of people will be better for it, and the commonwealth of Kentucky will be better for it,” he said.
For years, bills aimed at giving some nonviolent felons the opportunity to have their records expunged passed the House but died in the Senate. After the Senate vote Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Darryl Owens of Louisville, the bill’s lead sponsor, said he was inclined to recommend the House accept the changes.
He said the Senate’s 33-5 vote in support of the bill represented an historic day.
“We are giving a number of people a chance to get their life back on track,” Owens said.
Senators supporting the amended version included Senate President Robert Stivers, Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Whitney Westerfield.
The bill would apply to people convicted of some Class D felony offenses — crimes whose maximum sentence is five years in prison — allowing them to ask a court to clear their records.
The measure would not apply to felons convicted of violent crimes or sex offenses.
Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, said it was a constituent who swayed him to support the legislation.
The constituent, as a young man, committed a felony two decades ago and had not committed another crime since. But because of his felony record, he had trouble getting a job. Westerfield, who helped shepherd the bill through the Senate, said there are tens of thousands Kentuckians in similar situations.
“Men and women who did something stupid … have shown that they’ve learned not to do it anymore,” he said. “They ought to have a chance at a second shot. That’s what this bill does.”
Senators opposing the bill said the five-year waiting period wasn’t long enough. They also said prospective employers deserve to know if a job applicant has a criminal past.
“We have no right to hold this information from citizens after just such a short period of time,” said Republican Sen. John Schickel of Union.
Under the bill, eligible offenders could go to court to ask a judge to vacate and expunge their criminal records. Prosecutors could respond to the request on behalf of crime victims. The judge would then decide whether to expunge the record. Westerfield said the decision would not be automatic.
The Senate version also narrowed the number of felony offenses covered by the expungement proposal. Out of about 400 Class D felonies, 61 would be covered by the bill, Westerfield said. But those 61 offenses cover about 70 percent of all Kentuckians convicted of Class D felonies, he said.
People convicted of multiple felonies would be ineligible to have their records expunged, unless all their offenses were committed in a single occurrence and all the offenses are covered by the bill.
The legislation is House Bill 40.