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VOL. 41 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 3, 2017

Bill seeks to reduce costs for criminal record expungement

By Sam Stockard

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With an eye toward helping convicted felons clear their records for a fresh start, Rep. Raumesh Akbari is sponsoring legislation to dramatically cut expungement fees.

The Memphis Democrat filed a bill this session in the General Assembly to reduce the fee to $180 from $350, though the full price for expungement is $450.

“I feel like you should give people a second chance,” Akbari says. “$450 is cost-prohibitive. People who want to get their life back on track can’t afford to do it.

“At the end of the day, you don’t want to define somebody by the decisions they made on their very worst day. We want to give people a chance to get working and rebuilding and being a part of society. And having that felony on their record makes it really difficult.”

Similar legislation, sponsored by Akbari in 2016, stalled in the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee because it was expected to reduce government revenue by $140,000. The fiscal impact could increase this year, she says, because the bill would remove money completely from the state’s general fund but leave $130 allocated for district attorneys and $50 per fee for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Clerks would lose $10 per fee, and public defenders would lose funds targeted for expungement training, Akbari says.

Nevertheless, the bill has bipartisan support, Akbari says, in addition to the backing of both Memphis and Shelby County mayors’ offices, the business community and the Chambers of Commerce in Memphis and Davidson County.

The second-term legislators says she’s been talking with the governor’s office about the bill and hopes Gov. Bill Haslam will make it a priority in his supplemental budget.

Just City, a Memphis nonprofit group with a Clean Slate Fund similar to one in the mayor’s office, is making the matter a legislative priority this session. Since forming in 2015, Just City has helped more than 200 pay the fee and clean up their record.

“Going through the process of trying to get a job with a criminal conviction, no matter how minor, is infinitely more complicated,” says Josh Spickler with Just City.

The group is made up of activists, attorneys and civic leaders in Shelby County and statewide who want to ensure people get their right to legal counsel and help limit damage to families and neighborhoods from encounters with the criminal justice system.

Convicted felons eligible for expungement are typically non-violent offenders who committed low-level thefts or drug offenses, according to Spickler. Yet they are barred from certain housing applications, student loan applications and job applications, making it exceedingly difficult to start over.

Those who’ve benefited from Just City’s Clean Slate Fund over the years typically worked two to three part-time, temporary jobs and were able to move into full-time jobs with benefits once they had their records expunged, he says.

Better jobs with higher pay, regular schedules and health benefits provide people with security and a stronger home life, Spickler points out.

“That trickles all the way down to kids who get to school on time and have someone at home at night to help with the homework. It provides a foundation for this person to advance their career even further by having a stable job or position for some time,” Spickler says.

One drawback is the ability to track the number of Shelby County residents tied down with felony convictions, he says, calling local data systems “notoriously shallow and unworkable.” But Spickler says the number of people who’ve gone through the system once numbers in the tens of thousands.

The fee targeted by Akbari’s legislation is for felony convictions only, not for diversion, a matter Just City plans to deal with through a separate bill.

Spickler points out the fee it is targeting with this measure increased to $350 from $50 in 2010-11. The total fee of $450 is the second or third highest fee of its kind in the country. Even so, he expects to run into some hurdles.

“The idea and the concept is easy for most lawmakers to get behind because they almost all have constituents who come to them with this problem. But it’s a totally different thing to ask that government agencies accept less revenue, even if it’s just a little bit,” Spickler says.

That $450, though, is a significant amount of money for most people, Akbari says.

“For many it is the difference between getting their life back on track and not being able to get it back on track. So it’s a real issue,” she says.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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