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Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, left, fist bumps Rep. Joseph Marino III, No Party-Gretna, right, on the House floor as the 85 day regular legislative session begins Monday March 9, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

Technically, people with arrests or certain convictions in their pasts are entitled to have their public-facing records scrubbed. But the difficulty of navigating a badly broken system has made procuring expungements so complicated and costly that, as a practical matter, they're often out of reach.

“It’s the most Kafkaesque thing I’ve ever seen as a lawyer,” is how Vanessa Spinazola, executive director of the Justice & Accountability Center of Louisiana, described the state’s current expungement process.

And that, in turn, has kept too many Louisianans with criminal records from finding housing and jobs, and otherwise being able to re-enter the mainstream and lead productive lives. Indeed, the current system places the steepest burden on those who are least equipped to pay the price and jump through all the necessary hoops.

The Legislature can change that with several bills now working their way through the process, which would make expungement automatic for those eligible. We urge lawmakers who’ve embraced other important criminal justice reforms to take this additional step.

House Bill 604 by state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, and companion measure HB232 by state Rep. Joe Marino, I-Gretna, would remove a number of obstacles to those seeking a fresh start. Most importantly, James’ bill calls for the government to initiate expungements for anyone currently eligible, rather than forcing individuals to apply, go to court and often hire a lawyer at a cost that can run into the thousands. The bill would also eliminate fees that can run as high as $650 for each contact with the criminal justice system, the steepest in the nation.

Guest column: Easier expungement is smart-on-crime policy

Just as important is what the proposals don’t do. They don’t extend the right to expungement to those who are not now eligible: people convicted of sex offenses, most violent felonies, and misdemeanor stalking and domestic abuse and battery. Otherwise, expungements are generally available to people with arrests that didn’t result in convictions, with misdemeanor convictions dating back five years, and with felony convictions 10 years after completion of a sentence. The records would remain available to law enforcement and government agencies, as they are now.

This isn’t a simple proposition. Costs would include centralizing records now held by many jurisdictions, and the end of fees would mean lost revenue to state and local agencies. The new laws would take several years to fully implement.

The benefits, though, are many. Automatic expungements would help those eligible find homes and jobs, take care of their families and fully participate in their communities. It would help break the cycle of poverty and reduce recidivism, research shows.

Both bills cleared the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee unanimously, which suggests that the ideologically diverse coalition that has backed previous criminal justice reform measures remains intact. That’s encouraging.

Louisianans who are entitled under the law to a clean slate shouldn’t have to ask for it, or pay money they can’t afford. If these bills become law, they won’t.