Ex-felons see criminal records as a 'life sentence'

Concern about fairness drives some states to consider laws that erase criminal records.

Sharon Lattiker has two master's degrees and is finishing up a PhD. But it's another credential earned more than a decade ago that controls her career: felon.

Even after a pardon from the governor of Illinois, Ms. Lattiker's check-fraud conviction makes landing her dream job as a public-school principal nearly impossible. "The X is always on your back," she says.

Nationwide, a growing number of convicted felons are seeking to erase any trace of past crimes as more employers perform background checks on job applicants – particularly since 9/11.

About a dozen states do wipe out at least some felony convictions. Most require ex-convicts to stay out of trouble for a set number of years and will only expunge first offenses. Most, too, refuse to erase crimes, such as murder, arson, and child molestation.

Now, amid rising concern that a criminal record can unfairly penalize some people for life, more states are considering relaxing their laws. For instance:

• In Rhode Island, legislators are debating whether to cut the waiting period between sentencing and expunging from 10 years to five.

• The Oklahoma state Senate has approved a bill that would allow the expunging of drug-possession convictions.

Felons in Oklahoma are barred from getting state licenses required for a variety of jobs, including working as a beautician. Convicted felons are also prohibited from hospital jobs or caring for children and the elderly.

"It's a big handicap on them the rest of their life," says Oklahoma state Sen. Frank Shurden. "If they straighten up, I want to give them a clean slate."

Illinois state Rep. Constance Howard says she, too, realized while hosting a career fair on the rough South Side of Chicago that while interviews went well, few landed jobs once employers performed background checks.

She's had little success convincing fellow lawmakers to approve proposed laws making it easier to erase criminal records – including legislation that would erase some criminal records where charges were later dropped or the sentence was served without any new arrests.

Wiping out criminal records, though, isn't welcomed by many employers. They say they fear unwittingly hiring thieves as shop clerks or bank tellers.

"Retailers do hire people who've made mistakes ... but we want to do it with our eyes open," says Rob Karr of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

It's not just job seekers applying for expungements. Stricter gun laws in Utah, for example, helped push expungement applications in Utah up 50 percent in the last three years, says Nannette Rolfe, of the state Bureau of Criminal Identification.

Expungements can make punishing repeat offenders harder, prosecutors say, because a record of prior convictions may increase bail or stiffen later sentences.

"Having that anchor around your ankle provides some deterrent," says William Guglietta, Rhode Island assistant attorney general. "That's the cost of getting involved in criminal activity."

Expungements may also erase any record of serious crimes by people who plead to lesser offenses, a study of Rhode Island expungements by Brown University's Taubman Center found.

A Rhode Island man, for example, charged with murder for killing his 4-month-old child was convicted of only assault and battery. After a year in jail and 10 years of waiting, any trace of the crime was cleared from his record.

In Chicago, Ms. Lattiker wonders if the problems of her past will ever disappear. Since being caught up in a check-writing scandal in the city office where she worked alongside her mother, she became a born-again Christian, paid restitution, and was hired as a private-school principal.

"If a person has served their time and paid your debt to society, how long does one pay for a mistake?" Lattiker asks.

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