Not many things bring Republicans and Democrats together these days. But bipartisan legislation working its way through the Ohio General Assembly that would streamline the process to expunge criminal records is a good example that compromise is important. Senate Bill 160, introduced by Sen. Sean O’Brien, D-Bazetta, and Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, would allow offenders to apply to have certain crimes expunged and their records sealed for most convictions.
Any person convicted of a misdemeanor or felony not considered an excluded offense — some of the most serious crimes — could apply to the sentencing court for expungement of their record, but only if they have not been convicted of any further offenses. Those eligible for expungement could apply after 20 years for a first-degree felony, 15 years for a second-degree felony or 10 years for third-, fourth- or fifth-degree felonies.
Ohio law currently excludes all first- and second-degree felonies from expungements. Under Senate Bill 160, crimes excluded from expungement would be limited to murder, voluntary manslaughter, child abuse, patient abuse, kidnapping, human trafficking, terrorism, domestic violence and any sexually-based offense.
The bill would also rightly eliminate the waiting period for sealing a record related to cases in which a grand jury was presented with evidence and chose not to indict a person. If the grand jury does not indict — known as a no bill — there is no reason to maintain a waiting period.
We think the basis of this bill is sound. We believe people deserve second chances, and in this case they must earn them by not committing another crime for an extended period of time. “This bill gives a second chance to folks who made a stupid decision many years ago, but have otherwise lived honest, law-abiding lives,” O’Brien said.
The prison system is tough enough, and a felony conviction long haunts someone’s record. People can lose out on countless jobs and other opportunities, which makes reintegrating into society difficult to impossible in some cases. But, most importantly, that conviction can often cause people to lose hope that they have a real future. That feeds the cycle of recidivism, which is about 30 percent in Ohio, a figure that is improving but still points to too many people falling in and out of the prison system. Many are there because of their own decisions, but as a society we can and should be doing more to create a system that makes it an easier transition out of prison and into a law-abiding life.
That being said, we agree with experts on both sides of the law who said the bill could use some tweaking.
From a prosecutor’s perspective, we agree that the list of crimes not eligible for expungement needs to grow. There are serious crimes not on the list, particularly among first-, second- and third-degree felonies, and while refraining from crime for a 10- or 20-year-period is a good indicator someone is unlikely to re-offend, it is not necessarily a guarantee.
And, from a criminal defense point of view, the bill expands the waiting period for expungement for lower-level felonies from the current three years to 10 years, which we agree is a step backwards for nonviolent offenders who deserve a chance to move forward.
Striking a balance when it comes to expungement is important. The public must be protected and there must be repercussions for criminal misdeeds. At the same time, there must be hope for those who have made a single mistake, and the prison system is certainly a significant and serious punishment.
This bill is a start, and we think a path to a bipartisan compromise that will both protect and inspire.