Bill to allow people to restrict access to criminal records clears Legislature

    It could soon be easier for nonviolent offenders to have their names cleared in Georgia thanks to a bill that unanimously passed both chambers. Photo by Getty Images

    This post was updated at 9 a.m. June 26 to remove an incorrect percentage of working age Georgians with a criminal record.

    The Douglasville offices of nonprofit Justice Advocate Restorative Services are closed for the pandemic, but Kenneth Howell’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. 

    “We’ve been getting a lot of phone calls,” Howell said. “A lot of people are calling in looking for information about getting their regular background checks cleared up, because they have a hard time finding jobs, especially permanent ones.”

    Howell’s job is to help former criminals clear their records, allowing them to more easily find jobs or housing. Demand keeps rising since COVID-19 began shutting down businesses and sparking layoffs across the state in April.

    Nearly one in 10 Georgians were out of work last month as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to keep people indoors and away from businesses. It’s hard to find work right now, and that goes double for Georgians with a criminal record – employers tend to look elsewhere when a background check shows prior convictions.

    But it could soon be easier for working-age Georgians with a criminal record after the Georgia House and Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday to expunge nonviolent offenses from public records.

    The bill, sponsored by Lithonia Democrat Sen. Tonya Anderson, is intended to allow some ex-offenders convicted of misdemeanors who have completed their sentences and not been convicted of a crime for four years to petition to have their records restricted from the public. Judges and attorneys would still be able to access the records with a court order.

    “By passing this bill, we’ll not only help returning citizens gain employment and build Georgia jobs, but we can help reduce recidivism rates across the state,” said Rep. Houston Gaines, an Athens Republican who sponsored the bill in the House. “At a time when unemployment is near a record high, we can help Georgians across our state.”

    Potential employers will no longer be able to see records of minor convictions, and that’s a big deal for the people requesting Howell’s services, about seven in 10 of whom come in because they have trouble finding work.

    “That’s a big game changer,” Howell said. “Depending on how old it is, sometimes we can get it restricted, and sometimes, no. It’s a big deal.”

    If Gov. Brian Kemp signs the bill into law, Georgia will join 41 other states with similar programs. 

    “Our large employers like Home Depot and Coca-Cola, they’ve expressed their support, prosecutors, defense attorneys, all ends of the political spectrum, from the Faith and Freedom Coalition to Americans for Prosperity to the Southern Center for Human Rights, nonprofit groups like the United Way. It’s something we can all get behind,” Gaines said.

    For many of Howell’s clients, restricting access to their minor offense history means more than just a new job, he said.

    “Reintegrating people back into the workforce changes their lives,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s changing the people in their lives. Once you’re able to go to work, start hanging out and being around a different set of people, your lifestyle changes. They’ve been able to find housing, especially if they have children, and they’re moving on with their lives.” 

    Ross Williams
    Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.