Scales of justice

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There’s a common motivation behind many of the criminal justice reforms that have been enacted in recent years — that people who’ve had past brushes with the law, particularly involving nonviolent offenses, deserve a second chance.

It’s the theory behind the wide-ranging package that Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Legislature enacted in 2017, which included measures to steer people convicted of lower-level crimes away from prison, provide alternatives to incarceration, reduce some prison terms and smooth the way for re-entry into society. It’s also the principle behind “ban the box” policies enacted by the state of Louisiana and cities such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which don’t ask about applicants’ criminal history during the early stages of the hiring process.

Making it easier for people who are eligible to expunge old criminal records is a logical next step. Yet by charging $550, the highest such cost in the nation, Louisiana imposes a steep burden on those who technically have the right to a clean, public-facing slate, though expunged records remain accessible to law enforcement and government agencies. Lingering criminal records can make it difficult to find housing or employment.

A new federal lawsuit against Attorney General Jeff Landry and the state’s parish clerks and district attorneys seeks to change that. The suit, filed in December by the advocacy groups The First 72+ and Equal Justice Under Law on behalf of three Louisiana residents, argues that these fees should be waived for people who qualify for expungements but can’t afford to pay for them. Expungements are generally available to people with arrests that didn’t result in convictions, and those with misdemeanor convictions dating back five years and some nonviolent felony convictions that are at least 10 years old. The costs can rise quickly because the $550 just covers each individual contact with the justice system. For the suit’s plaintiffs, the cost of clearing their records would range from $2,200 to $4,950.

“Poor Louisianans face a terrible Catch-22; they cannot afford to expunge their records because they cannot obtain stable, well-paying employment, and but they cannot obtain stable, well-paying employment because of their criminal records,” the suit says.

Louisiana doesn’t charge for expungements for those who want to clear arrest records, but only if they have never been convicted of a felony and face no pending felony charges. There’s also a provision allowing applicants to file for pauper status, but the suit says the process is complicated and confusing. It also argues that the status quo undercuts the expungement law’s intent.

We agree, and we’re heartened that one of the defendants, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore, has already stepped up to advocate for reform. Moore declined to comment on the suit’s specifics, but he acknowledged that the process is “onerous and burdensome” and has been exploring ideas to change it. One such proposal is modeled on Pennsylvania, which has a no-fee, automated expungement process.

Providing a fair, reasonable path for people who’ve met their obligations to re-enter society is simply good policy. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to make it a reality.