As a former assistant city prosecutor in Baton Rouge, I handed out low-level convictions like I was on an assembly line. I realized that these convictions affected not just the people but their whole community, by preventing them from finding legal employment. Fortunately, Louisiana is now considering "clean slate" legislation that would expunge thousands of these counterproductive criminal records.
In the years I spent as a prosecutor, I met hundreds of defendants every day. I sat down with one defendant after another in a little room to discuss plea offers. I was pressured to keep the line moving like a Walmart checkout counter, not a justice system with lifelong consequences on the line.
Most of the defendants I saw didn’t understand the courtroom. They were too proud to admit they were broke in front of a room full of strangers, which disqualified them from receiving a court-appointed lawyer. When they met with me, they asked me for advice as if I were their lawyer rather than someone evaluated, in part, on how quickly I got them to plead guilty.
Most defendants didn’t understand the consequences of a conviction, either. They saw that a guilty plea would let them go home to their kids that same day. They typically didn’t realize that the conviction could stop them from voting, owning a gun, living in public housing, finding a job or apartment, or driving a car.
When people can’t find jobs, can’t legally drive to work, or end up homeless, the entire community pays the price. When they cannot support themselves and their families, they are more likely to commit crimes. A survey in Alabama found that four in ten people committed at least one crime to get money to pay off their court-related fines and fees.
There is a solution. Expunging the criminal record of someone who poses little public safety risk allows them to choose a productive path. A Harvard Law Review study found that people who obtained expungements are extremely unlikely to reoffend.
Louisiana has already allowed expungement for many low-level offenses, but few eligible individuals make it through the process. It requires people to visit three different offices and pay over $500 to clear their records, one of the highest fees in the nation.
Louisiana can fix the process with clean slate legislation proposed by state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge. House Bill 604 would expand eligibility to people who judges deem appropriate for pretrial diversion or addiction treatment programs. It would ensure that people with disabilities, veterans, family caretakers, and retired people can become eligible without having formal employment.
And it would help automate the process, so we are not burying parish offices and petitioners in unnecessary bureaucracy.
This legislation would bring Louisiana in line with other states that recognize expungement makes communities safer. States from Utah to Virginia have already passed clean slate bills.
As a former prosecutor, I am encouraged to see Louisiana’s leaders advancing clean slate legislation. I believe that this legislation will remove barriers to work, keep families together, save taxpayer dollars, and improve public safety. That is a win-win.
David Brown is a former assistant city prosecutor for Baton Rouge. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of prosecutors, judges, police, and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.