Some of us may remember a stern principal or harried teacher warning us that misbehavior could lead to a black mark on our “permanent record.”
As adolescence faded into adulthood, the prospect of negative comments from former educators coming back to haunt us became quaint, even laughable. What were we so worried about?
But permanent records of real consequence exist — they’re the ones on file at county courthouses and in the N.C. Department of Public Safety database — and once stained, they are notoriously difficult to scrub clean.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers took a positive step toward reform late last month in passing a bill that streamlines the criminal record expunction process, allowing for more common sense and even a little mercy.
Senate Bill 445 modifies the process for expunction, also known as expungement. It used to be a once-in-a-lifetime proposition — if a judge granted your petition to expunge a criminal charge from your record, you could never file another one. Even if subsequent charges were filed in error and tossed out by a judge or prosecutor, they’d remain on your record for life.
The recently passed bill eliminates that provision and sets guidelines for expunction of criminal convictions and criminal charges.
If you plead guilty or are convicted of a crime, the system is right to scrutinize your request for removal with a fine-toothed comb. However, if you were falsely accused of a crime and then exonerated, erasing that mark shouldn’t require as much elbow grease.
SB 445 categorizes expunctions by the offender’s age and the severity of the crime. There are different requirements for first offenders convicted of misdemeanors while under 18, first offenders convicted of minor drug offenses while under 21, first offenders convicted of nonviolent felonies while under 18, adult offenders convicted of certain misdemeanors and felonies and adult offenders convicted of prostitution.
Convictions that cannot be expunged include high-grade felonies (classes A-G), Class A1 misdemeanors, assault offenses, sex offenses, stalking, using or selling methamphetamine and heroin, selling cocaine, impaired driving and felonies involving commercial motor vehicles.
Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, introduced the reform bill with five co-sponsors including our own Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, who chairs the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus. The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys gave the bipartisan bill its seal of approval.
Stakeholders struck a balance between holding people accountable for the decisions they make and helping them earn a clean slate when they can demonstrate they have changed their ways.
The existence of a criminal record can make it difficult for ex-offenders to participate in society. Prospective employers, landlords, colleges and even volunteer programs place a lot of stock in record checks and what they reveal. Trapping people in a cycle of crime and punishment has negative effects on entire communities.
The standards for expunging a conviction are fair and reasonable. The reforms for expunging charges that don’t result in convictions could go even further, placing the burden for correction on police and prosecutors. Regardless, this effort is a good first step.