- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - At least 62,000 convicted felons could ask a judge to wipe away or “vacate” their criminal records, making it easier for them to get a job and get into college under a bill that, for the first time, is gaining traction in the Republican-controlled Kentucky Senate.

Democrats in the state House of Representatives have passed similar bills for years, only to watch them die in the Senate where the Republican majority viewed them as offensive to crime victims and worrisome to business owners who want to know the backgrounds of the people they hire.

But the issue was revived this year when new Republican Gov. Matt Bevin gave it an enthusiastic endorsement and publicly called on the Senate to pass it. The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce also came on board, seeing it as a way to add thousands of workers to the state’s shrinking workforce. And the bill got a boost Thursday from Cameron Mills, the founder of a prison ministry but better known for winning two national championships with the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team in the late 1990s.

The House version would apply to nearly all of the more than 300 felonies punishable by up to five years in prison. But the Senate version only applies to a specific list of 61 crimes. They include theft and possession of illegal drugs, two crimes that have resulted in more than 26,000 convictions in the last five years. It also includes lesser known crimes like theft of a medical record, sports bribery and eavesdropping, which records show has resulted in zero convictions since 2011.

Of all the more than 87,000 class D felony convictions in Kentucky from 2011 to 2015, the 61 crimes eligible for being vacated would cover more than 62,000, or just over 70 percent.

“My dream would be at some point in future legislation we can expand that (list),” said Democratic state Rep. Daryl Owens, who wrote the House version of the bill. “But you can’t expand it if you don’t have anything. To me the key is getting something.”

Convicted felons would not be eligible until five years after completing their prison sentence or probation, whichever is later. After five years, felons must pay $500 and ask a judge to vacate their judgment. The judge would notify the prosecutor, and the prosecutor would notify the victims of the crime. Both could show up at the hearing and ask the judge to not vacate the judgment.

The judge could decide to vacate the sentence if the person has no other convictions or pending arrests. But people could only have a judgment vacated once in their lifetime.

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said vacating the judgment is different from expunging it. An expungement means the criminal record is hidden. Vacating a judgment means, in the eyes of the law, it never existed. Kentucky’s Constitution requires convicted felons to lose their rights to vote, hold public office, own a gun or serve on a jury. But Stivers said felons would get all of those rights back if a judge vacates the judgment against them.

While the bill now moves to the full Senate for consideration, its passage is not certain. Republican Sen. Danny Carroll of Paducah said he was troubled by the idea of vacating sentences to add to the state’s workforce, saying merging commerce with justice was “a slippery slope.”

“I sense with a lot of people they feel a sense of entitlement to have their felony expunged,” Carroll said. “These are crimes and even with this reduced list, these are crimes that have victims. Those victims need to be considered.”

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