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Expungement law has good, bad sides, prosecutors say

 Associated Press
July 21, 2014
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An Indiana law allowing some criminals to have their records expunged is drawing mixed reviews from judges and attorneys, who say parts of the law don't make sense.

The goal of the measure that took effect last year is to improve nonviolent offenders' chances of getting a job by shielding felony convictions from a background check done by potential employers.

Hundreds of offenders across the state have applied for expungement; Monroe County has processed 273 requests during the first six months of this year alone.

While supporters say the law gives offenders a second chance, others argue the process can demean the justice system by effectively making a person's bad acts disappear.

"There is good, and bad, where this law is concerned," Monroe County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Bob Miller told The Herald-Times. "On the one hand, it provides a sort of amnesty for people who made a mistake when they were younger that has haunted them since in terms of education and employment. That part is a good thing."

But victims can think it's unfair for an offender to clear his record, Miller said.

That's happened in Morgan County, where Prosecutor Steve Sonnega has challenged expungement petitions he doesn't think should be granted.

Sonnega said the positive aspects of the law are often outweighed by the loss of the victim's rights.

He cited one case in which a man charged with sexual battery had a trial where 11 jurors voted to convict and one stood firm on her not-guilty vote. The victim, a child at the time of the crime, didn't want to testify a second time, so the charge was reduced to battery and the man pleaded guilty.

During the perpetrator's expungement hearing earlier this year, the victim testified that she still is haunted by what happened.

"She testified, very powerfully, that she had to live with the consequences of his actions every day and that she believed he should, too — a logical argument from a crime victim," Sonnega said.

But the law doesn't allow judges to weigh victims' testimony.

"There's not much leeway for a prosecutor or judge, and granting these becomes perfunctory, and that bothers me," Sonnega said.

Miller noted that even when a crime has been erased from the public record, prosecutors and police still can access the records and use them to determine whether to charge someone with a new offense.

"For example, if you have a drunk-driving conviction expunged and then get another OWI arrest within five years, the expunged conviction can be used to enhance the new charge to a felony," he said.

Morgan Superior Judge G. Thomas Gray, a former prosecutor, said he dislikes the expungement process and objects to a provision that says victims can address the court, but the judge cannot consider their testimony if the expungement fits the statute.

He also objects to a requirement that expungement petitions and hearings be kept confidential.

"It's an oxymoron. You can't allow anyone in the courtroom to hear what they say, and it can't be considered anyway," he said.

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  2. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  3. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  4. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

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