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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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