COLUMBIA — Legislators are working on a bill to erase nonviolent felonies from the records of now-upstanding citizens in hopes of helping them secure high-paying jobs.
Sen. Vincent Sheheen said Thursday the goal is to remove the criminal label that makes a successful career difficult for those who made a mistake in their late teens and 20s and have since turned their lives around.
“We want these people working and paying taxes,” said Sheheen, D-Camden.
The state already allows people convicted of a misdemeanor to have the charge expunged. The bill is meant to provide a path for those convicted of low-level felonies, such as shoplifting, receiving stolen goods and non-trafficking drug charges.
Under the bill, only ex-cons who have received a pardon from the state pardon and parole board could apply for their records to be cleared.
Sheheen heard from representatives of law enforcement, crime victims and prosecutors to help his subcommittee tweak a bill the House approved unanimously last April. They want the bill to better define which nonviolent crimes can be expunged and to specify that someone’s record must be clear for at least 10 years, possibly 15 to 20 years, to qualify.
Crime Victims’ Council director Laura Hudson said the bill as written is “way too broad.”
But Rep. Todd Rutherford, the main sponsor, argues against a time frame, saying that people who secure a pardon should have their record expunged immediately. Whether someone screwed up in their teens or had their first run-in with the law in their 40s also shouldn’t matter, as long as they’ve proven their lives have changed, he said.
“We are creating a class of people who are unemployable and doing so while other states are giving people a chance at hope,” said Rutherford, D-Columbia. “Now, even McDonald’s pulls rap sheets when they’re hiring.”
In South Carolina, securing a pardon means the person can serve on a jury and possess a handgun, and “pardoned” will be entered into his or her record next to the charge, said Ben Aplin, assistant chief legal counsel for the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.
But Rutherford argued that entry often means little to a potential employer. The defense lawyer said he recently secured a pardon for a former Citadel student charged with distributing an ADHD medication, whose conviction barred him from even going on the property of a Charleston-area employer half a dozen years later.
Rutherford called the proposal an important economic development bill in a state still struggling with chronic high unemployment.
“At some point, we’ve got to give people a second chance,” he said.
Supporters say the proposal could help thousands of already pardoned ex-cons be successful.
In the last two years alone, the state’s pardon board granted 786 pardons, out of the 1,143 cases it heard. The approval rating of pardon applications ranges between 50 percent and 70 percent yearly, Aplin said.
Sheheen said he agrees with a 10- to 15-year wait for a record to be expunged. While the person will have trouble finding work in the interim, he said, “that’s the price you pay for the conviction.”
“They’ll continue to have that black mark for a long time. The goal is not to lessen the punishment,” he said, but to assist their success once they’ve proven themselves to society over a length of time.
The Senate subcommittee will meet again next week about proposed changes to the bill. Sheheen was the lone senator of the three-member panel to attend Thursday.