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Kansas lawmakers say they're getting closer to more easily expunging criminal records

 Michelle Ewert stands at a lectern testifying to lawmakers.
Kansas Legislature
Michelle Ewert talks to lawmakers earlier this year about expungement.

Multiple bills have tried to change the state’s laws on expungement, but none have passed. The bills do have bipartisan support and are expected to come back up next year.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Criminal convictions don’t need to last forever.

For crimes short of homicide or child abuse, the law allows for people to expunge their records a year or a decade later — depending on the crime.

And contingent on paying off any pending court costs.

It’s that last variable, the financial ledger, that can shut people out of jobs, housing or a host of other things available to the law-abiding that has Kansas lawmakers considering a change.

Last session, the Kansas House Judiciary Committee passed a bill preventing outstanding costs from denying someone expungement. Nobody spoke in opposition of the proposal, but it never came up for a vote on the House floor.

Now lawmakers expect another push for changes to the state’s expungement law.

Rep. Fred Patton, the chairperson of the House Judiciary Committee, said bills failed to advance earlier this year because of timing issues. By the time the House could have voted on the bill, many other pieces of legislation were being discussed and it got lost in the shuffle.

“When there’s very little opposition, and you’ve got quite a bit of support, that usually makes it fairly easy to get through that floor,” said Patton, a Topeka Republican.

Expungement isn’t eligible for everyone. People convicted of murder, manslaughter or child abuse, for example, cannot have their records expunged. Traffic violations, some drug crimes and other charges can be removed.

There is also a cool-down for expungement after a diversion or sentence was completed. A second-time drunk-driving conviction requires a 10-year wait before someone is eligible. Prostitution convictions can be expunged after a single year.

Michelle Ewert, an associate law professor at Washburn University, said a clean criminal record makes it easier for someone to get housing or work. She has represented low-income people in various roles in her career and she has seen how bouncing from place to place makes it hard to succeed.

Expungements in Kansas cost almost $200 per offense and someone trying to remove a few convictions could end up paying more.

If someone is struggling to pay off fines and fees from court, they won’t be able to pay off additional fines and fees that come with expungement, proponents of expungement changes say.

That keeps criminal charges on their record, which can be flagged during job interviews and cost them chances at employment. Without steady pay, they won’t be able to pay off the fines and fees to get their records cleaned.

“The people who most benefit from getting their records expunged are the ones who most need access to better jobs and housing,” Ewert said. “But they’re also the ones who are least likely to be able to afford the filing fee, or to repay fines and fees owed to the courts.”

About 6% of men are unemployed at 35, a study from the RAND Corporation found. Almost half of those people have a criminal conviction on record, underscoring the connection between criminal history and the struggle to find jobs.

It isn’t clear what possible legislation could look like when the Legislature meets again in January. Bills proposed in recent years advocated for automatic expungements and expungements even if someone owes money.

The courts can waive someone’s expungement fees now, but Ewert said a change in law could cut down on the legal paperwork that can trip someone up during this process.

“This is not a Democratic issue. This is not a Republican issue. This is an American issue,” Ewert said. “Allowing people to move forward … will have so many positive ripple effects in other parts of people’s lives.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
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