Nonviolent criminals can pay fee, restitution to wipe slate clean
By Christopher Whitten,
May 18, 2012

Tennesseans who have committed certain nonviolent crimes will be able to have their criminal records expunged for a $350 fee under a bill expected to become law July 1.

The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Karen Camper and state Sen. Reginald Tate, both D-Memphis, passed by a wide margin earlier this year.

Tennesseans convicted of a single felony or misdemeanor for nonviolent theft, certain types of fraud, vandalism, or other nonviolent crimes may qualify. They must have stayed crime-free for the past five years and paid all restitution and penalties.

“If you’ve had diversion or have other crimes on your record, you wouldn’t be eligible for this program,” said Rob Clark, legislative assistant to Camper. “This is not for career criminals; it’s for people who may have messed up once and are now trying to do the right thing and be a benefit to society.”

Camper said her office put on a two-part, felony-friendly job fair in September and the turnout inspired her to do more.

“We got an overwhelming response from people who had some minor offense in the past that kept them from being successful.”

Camper was able to get 38 members of the 99-member House to co-sponsor the bill.

“I just went to them and asked who they knew on their street, in their neighborhood, in their church. Everyone knows someone who has messed up,” Camper said.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, were among the 10 senators who voted against the bill.

Kelsey said he opposed the measure because it would prevent the public from knowing the truth about people.

“The public has a right to know who’s stealing cars in the community, and five years of no further criminal record is not long enough to guarantee reform of these felons,” Kelsey said.

Norris said he worked to amend the bill in committee but it was still “too subjective” as to which crimes qualified to be expunged.

“This seemed too broad. Too subjective. And I felt it too risky for us to substitute our judgment for the judgment of law enforcement as to which crimes merit enforcement versus absolution,” Norris said. “Who are we to say the felony of forgery should be forgiven but the (misdemeanor) of fraudulent use of a credit card should not?”

Gov. Bill Haslam has not acted on the bill yet, but is not expected to veto it.

Those who qualify for the program can submit the proper paperwork and pay the $350 fee. A judge will then decide whether to expunge their record.

The state of Tennessee projects the new legislation will generate more than $7 million in new revenue each year, but Shelby County Deputy Dist. Atty. John Campbell said that wouldn’t be the case.

“I see no problem in giving people another chance, but I don’t think when the legislators were looking at this, that they really understood how much work this is going to take,” Campbell said. “It’s definitely a process.”

Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk Chief administrative officer Richard DeSaussure said his office has received a significant number of inquiries pertaining to the new legislation.

“This has garnered quite a bit of interest,” DeSaussure said. “I’m anticipating that there will be initially a fair number of people to take advantage of this to clean up their records.”

DeSaussure said that while his office will receive a fraction of the fee, the greatest benefit from this legislation will stem from what it takes to qualify. The bill says applicants must fulfill all the requirements of the sentence imposed by the court, including payment of all fines, restitution, court costs and other assessments.

“I recently figured that number to be somewhere in excess of $300 million or better,” for all outstanding court fines in Shelby County, he said, and more than $1 billion statewide. “That’s going to slow a bunch of people down. You have no idea how much money we’ve got out there in uncollected fines. It’s astronomical.”

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