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VOL. 11 | NO. 13 | Saturday, March 31, 2018

Akbari’s Expungement Bill Moves Toward Passage

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Buoyed by the support of Gov. Bill Haslam, legislation making it less expensive for non-violent felons to clear their records is rolling through the General Assembly.

House bill 1862, sponsored by Rep. Raumesh Akbari, is set to be heard April 2 in the full House after clearing the Finance, Ways & Means Committee this week with no debate or opposition.

The measure by Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, would lower the expungement fee to $180 from $350 for defendants whose charge is dismissed after they complete a pretrial diversion program.

“We want our justice system not just to punish people but also to rehabilitate people so they can re-enter society,” Akbari said.

Reducing the expungement fee removes a barrier allowing people to wipe their record clean so they can return to work and “engage in society,” she said. Too often, people with a felony on their record have trouble finding a good job, obtaining financial aid and even moving into housing, she said.

The cases primarily would involve cases such as theft, fraud or minor drug charges, and as long as people have paid restitution and fees and haven’t committed another crime for five or 10 years, they would be eligible for expungement.

The state is expected to lose an estimated $144,000 because of the legislation. But Haslam placed funding in the supplement to his $37.5 billion budget plan to cover that loss, according to Akbari.

On the other hand, the fee reduction would bring an estimated $267,700 for county court clerk offices statewide because more people are expected to apply for expungement once the fee is more affordable.

“I’m so happy the governor prioritized this in his budget. I think it’s a big deal to truly help people get their lives back on track,” said Akbari, a Memphis attorney.

Akbari’s legislation passed the House Finance, Ways & Means Committee without any fuss, but during an earlier Criminal Justice Committee meeting it ran into opposition from the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference as spokesman Stephen Crump warned lawmakers such a change is another in a line of efforts to water down the criminal justice system’s efforts dealing with fraud and forgery cases, among other offenses.

“Actions in life have consequences,” Crump said, noting some system of deterrence is needed to keep people from breaking laws.

The legislation would create another set of victims for people who fall back into their criminal habits, Crump contended.

“We think the ability of an employer to know who they’re hiring and the ability of the public to feel safe with who’s servicing them or working for them is an important function of the criminal justice system,” he said.

But Josh Spickler, executive director of the Memphis nonprofit Just City, said his organization doesn’t see people re-offend after they’ve gone through diversion and then expungement, especially since a 10-year waiting period can be required before people qualify to clear their record.

“We get a lot of positive response from the expungement work we do,” Spickler said. “These (legislators) understand that people have to eventually move out from encumbrance of contact with the criminal justice system that goes with people for the rest of their lives.”

Just City, since 2015, has helped more than 200 people pay the fee and clean up their record. 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.

Rep. William Lamberth, a former assistant district attorney, gave strong voice to Akbari’s legislation as chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, saying people who’ve completed their sentences and are eligible for expungement should not hit a wall in the form of high fees.

“If they have a right to expungement legally, then lowering that fee down so it’s a more affordable fee for somebody trying to get their record clear, I think it’s good public policy. I think that’s something we should all be in favor of, and I hope it passes the House and Senate floor and becomes law,” said Lamberth, a Sumner County Republican.

Akbari also received the backing of state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, who serves on the Criminal Justice Committee.

“When you come up in communities like I’ve come up in, the only difference between my friends ending up in the penal system and myself, they got caught and I didn’t,” he said.

People shouldn’t be punished for their entire lives because of one small mistake, he said, adding Tennessee’s criminal justice system is harsh enough already.

“At some point we have to give people the opportunity to get back to life,” Parkinson said.

State Rep. Jim Coley, a Bartlett Republican, also gave his support to Akbari’s legislation.

“I think there has to be some redemption because if there’s not some redemption we’re setting people up for failure,” Coley said.

Crump countered, saying, “The system is replete with opportunities for redemption.” But Akbari’s legislation passed the Criminal Justice Committee with a 10-1 vote.

The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican, was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week and referred to the Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland previously said, “I believe wholeheartedly in removing barriers that keep non-violent offenders from re-entering the workforce, which is why we raised more than $55,000 in private donations to pay for expungements here in Memphis. So yes, I’m also in favor of decreasing the fees so that expungement can be even more accessible to those who could benefit from it.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News and Nashville Ledger. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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