- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 28, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina legislation expanding the crimes ex-cons can have erased from their criminal records has a seemingly unlikely backer - the state Chamber of Commerce.

Because criminal records can prevent job seekers from being called in for an interview or even filling out an application, removing minor offenses such as drug possession has the two-fold benefit of improving people’s lives while helping businesses fill openings, chamber CEO Ted Pitts told The Associated Press.

“If we can remove that off somebody’s record, then that gives them a second chance,” he said. “We’ve got workforce issues, and we want to work with South Carolinians in making sure they become productive taxpaying citizens.”

The House Judiciary Committee voted 16-4 Tuesday to advance a bill expanding offenses eligible for expungement.

Rep. Eddie Tallon opposed the idea, saying businesses can choose to hire or not, no matter what’s in someone’s past.

“I believe the business has the right to know who they’re hiring,” said Tallon, R-Spartanburg, a retired state law enforcement officer.

Pitts said the bipartisan bill provides a step toward “reintegrating a segment of society back in the workforce” in a way the business community approves. He added that businesses would never support expunging crimes involving violence, sexual assault or dishonesty.

Currently, only a first minor offense can be expunged.

The bill provides flexibility in deleting a later crime, “so the person can pick the one most problematic for a job search and job hunt,” said Adam Whitsett, attorney for the State Law Enforcement Division, which helped craft the compromise.

It allows several related offenses to be grouped together for deletion. And it allows a first-offense drug conviction - no matter what drug - to be removed.

The bill still requires a person’s record to be clean for at least three to five years, depending on their crime, before applying for expungement.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said South Carolina is essentially “branding people for the rest of their lives for a minor drug possession.” Other states either automatically expunge nonviolent records after a certain length of time or make it much easier, he said.

Because businesses of every size do background checks when hiring and promoting, “we’ve got a problem of destroying our own population,” said Rutherford, D-Columbia. “We are killing them with the private sector who wants to hire them - who needs to hire them.”

He successfully sought an amendment that ties expungement to any pardon. Currently, even if the state’s Board of Paroles and Pardons approves pardoning a crime, it remains in the criminal record.

“At some point we’ve got to allow someone to have a future,” Rutherford said.

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