BATON ROUGE, LA (KALB) - A new criminal justice reform bill filed by a democratic state representative out of East Baton Rouge Parish promises to make it easier for people with prior convictions, who have walked the straight and narrow since the completion of their sentence, to wipe the slate clean.
House Bill 327 is only in its infancy stages, but it’s already getting the attention of those who work to help people rebuild their lives after incarceration, as well as the state’s largest law enforcement labor organization for one very specific line in the bill.
The bill is authored by state Rep. Edward "Ted" James and it seeks to rework a section of the state's code of criminal procedure as it pertains to the release of criminal records by police.
There are currently penalties in place to prevent law enforcement agencies from releasing criminal histories to the general public via national search databases, but the current law does not change the information a citizen can get a public records request or through a simple trip to the clerk of court’s office.
If HB 327 were to pass, officers and employees of law enforcement agencies would not be allowed to disclose arrests that didn't result in convictions. It would block the release of a misdemeanor arrest and conviction if five years have passed and that person hasn't been arrested or convicted since. And, the bill would block the release of a felony arrest and conviction if 10 years have passed under those same rules. The bill would not prevent that information from being shared between law enforcement agencies.
If those conditions are violated, the officer or law enforcement agency employee is subject to "removal," and could even face a fine between $2,000 and $5,000.
"This legislation, where you made a mistake and you have walked the straight and narrow and you have not had any other instances with the criminal justice system, you ought to be able to start fresh and rebound," Rep. James told News Channel 5.
Rep. James told us he based his bill off a law passed in Pennsylvania last year. But, the Pennsylvania "Clean Slate Law" is tremendously different.
In some cases, that law will seal records automatically. But, in others, you have to apply. But, the law only applies to residents with non-violent misdemeanors. They can have records sealed if they have stayed out of trouble for 10 years and paid the fines.
HB 327 doesn't have wording that prohibits sealing records of violent offenders. And, as Rep. James told us, he believes if a person has served their time, even in those situations, the public doesn't need to know about it.
"I don't," he said. "I feel like they shouldn't be stopped from being able to provide for their family because they made mistakes in the past. In Louisiana, purse snatching is technically a violent crime. Not all of the crimes based on our statute are those that are considered a rapist and all of those different things. You know? That's another level, right? But, we have some that are technically violent crimes that I don't think rise to a level that should be a fear or concern for people."
The bill has the support of Re-Entry Solutions in Alexandria, a local non-profit that helps previous offenders get employment.
“There are a lot of people that will come through and say that because of my arrest rate it has been five or 10 years, it’s still popping up,” said Annie Brown, the interim executive director. “In order for a person to progress, once they do their time, if they have been a citizen that has been abiding by the law, I think all that should be put behind them.”
But, the bill is drawing opposition from the Louisiana Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP has no problems with people with prior misdemeanors getting a second chance, but has real concerns about felony offenders.
"If it's a violent crime, which can be manslaughter or any type of rape and aggravated crime, I would even say purse snatching, I would consider that a violent crime," said Darrell Basco, the president of the Louisiana Fraternal Order of Police. "I would think the public would agree with that they would want to know who the violent criminal is who is living next door to them."
The FOP also has concerns about language in the bill that could lead to the removal of an officer.
"We believe along with our legal counsel that this bill is actually unconstitutional," said Basco. "With civil service, because it is its own constitutional entity, you can't pass a law that circumvents that process. Now, it is on a clerk or officer to start counting days, to start counting how many prior convictions that they have. That's a lot of information. Even though we have what you've been arrested for, we don't necessarily have the disposition of those records all of the time because of PTI (pre-trial intervention), diversion programs and other issues like that."
Rep. James told us he's willing to come to the table to talk with police.
"I think it's important because they are going to play a very vital role in what we're doing with this legislation," he said. "So, I wanted to name them so we are not hiding from what we are attempting to do. I want the police officer to know they are going to play a huge part in what we're doing."
We also asked Rep. James about people getting those records through other methods like the clerk of court's office or even a simple Google search. He said it's something he's going to have to look into.
We also asked about civil service protection. Rep. James said he believes that police chiefs should have some “latitude” to remove an officer under the provisions of his bill and that the “officer has a right just like any officer to go before the board and fight for their job back.”