We Need a “Clean Slate” for Criminal Records to Grow Kentucky’s Economy

The following was published as an opinion piece in Louisville Business First on June 22, 2022.

Kentucky has celebrated some great employment news over the last six months. The biggest, of course, is Ford Motor Co.’s and SK Innovation’s announced battery plant project in Glendale, which will employ at least 5,000 people. 

Other good news has followed, including the expansion of Toyota’s plant in Georgetown, GE Appliance Park in Louisville, and Tyson Foods in Bowling Green, which will bring 1,400, 1,000, and 450 new jobs to the state, respectively.

Congratulations to Gov. Andy Beshear and many state legislators from both political parties who have worked together for the commonwealth’s economic development. 

Now it’s time for the same elected officials to come together to make sure that there are enough eligible Kentuckians for these businesses to hire. 

According to a 2021 report by the League of Women Voters, over 175,000 Kentucky citizens have completed serving their sentences for nonviolent felonies and another 200,000 (most of whom have completed their sentences) have other felony convictions. We need to build on existing laws and make it easier for these potential employees to clear their records.

Legislators took an important step six years ago when they made it possible, for the first time, for Kentucky workers to expunge, or clear, their criminal records — a requirement for many high-paying jobs with benefits. A clean criminal record is required for most jobs and most jobs funded by federal contracts, but the process has been called “costly and sometimes arduous.”

The petition-based process is always arduous, since it requires paying to check your record, hiring an attorney, appearing in court, updating the records, responding to any objections by prosecutors, and then paying a fee of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars.

All of these steps are required to utilize the opportunity for record clearance that a person has already earned by serving a sentence and remaining crime-free for five additional years. Automating this process is essential to making record clearance easier. 

The road map to progress is clear, and help is at hand. Indeed, the Clean Slate Initiative, a national organization lead by Executive Director Sheena Meade, has led successful efforts to automate record clearance in seven states. 

I had the opportunity to meet Sheena Meade earlier this year when she visited Kentucky, a visit that also connected her with members of the Kentucky Smart on Crime Coalition, which includes groups as different as the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the ACLU of Kentucky, the Kentucky Council of Churches, and the Kentucky NAACP, together with people who had personal experiences with obtaining an expungement in Kentucky. 

I am excited by the Clean Slate Initiative’s interest in supporting this work and personally energized to do whatever I can more to help those aiming to clear their criminal records.

Notably, the Louisville Urban League led its first expungement clinic on a snowy February morning in 2018, and almost 800 people showed up by 8 a.m. to clear their records. I am inspired by people who have paid their price to society and remain hungry to participate in a growing economy, to buy houses, to invest in their families and neighborhoods, to pay more taxes, and to make this a better community for all.