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Ga. Senate panel backs limits on criminal records access

Committee feels unrestricted use is causing prejudice in hiring

POSTED: January 9, 2014 12:47 a.m.

A state Senate committee recommended limiting access to criminal records in order to protect people convicted of crimes and those who were wrongly accused, Sen. Butch Miller said.

Miller, R-Gainesville, was one of five members of the Senate Expungement Reform Study Committee. He said the committee sought to evaluate key considerations in the access to records in the criminal justice system.

“Which of that information should be public? When should it be public?” he said.

Helping convicts obtain gainful employment has been a point of emphasis in statewide criminal justice reforms.
Miller said landlords’ and employers’ unrestricted ability to ask about criminal histories limits access to jobs and housing.

“For instance, if an applicant is applying for a job, and their records have been expunged, currently if they answer ‘no’ regarding their arrest, they are falsifying it in the state of Georgia,” Miller said. “The question becomes should applicants be allowed to check ‘no’ if their records have been restricted or expunged.”

He also said people accused, but with charges dropped or acquitted, suffered the same occurrences.

“Employers and landlords should be careful when they’re asking questions about arrest and charges if they didn’t lead to a conviction,” Miller said. “We’re trying to differentiate between someone who’s been arrested and someone who’s been convicted.”

The proposed changes also could affect press access to records, ending the release of mug shots and booking information.

David Hudson, attorney for the Georgia Press Association, said withholding release of arrest information is bad policy.

“Of course we have other protections in this country, but the general notion of not allowing the public to know who is arrested, for what, and their identities through photographs would remove great safeguards for individual
citizens, and for effective oversight on how police authorities and jailers perform their duties,” he said.

Some local employers, including Fieldale Farms, the second-largest employer in Hall County, said they do exercise discretion.

Jonathan Allen, vice president of human resources, said the company’s goal is always to gather the best information to make the best hiring decisions.

“I’m sure there’s probably things that would make us shy away from someone, but as a rule we haven’t eliminated any applicants based on convictions,” Allen said. “We just try to figure out the best information we can and go from there.”

Allen said the company knows that, as a large employer, every day locals seek employment.

“We try to take the employees who come to (the) door and evaluate them — we’re just looking for good people that want to work,” he said.

Northeast Georgia Medical Center, the largest employer in Hall County, will monitor any possible legislation, spokesman Sean Couch said.

“We historically follow all types of workforce issues and legislation,” he added.

The county is another large employer of Hall residents.

Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Mecum said while being accused of a crime doesn’t automatically imply guilt, he erred toward leaving discretion with employers when it came to knowing allegations.

“Just because someone is accused of something doesn’t mean it is so — and those employers should be able to weigh that themselves,” Mecum said.

Miller said constituents presented horror stories about accusations — in one instance stemming from mistaken identity — which haunted them even after charges were dismissed.

He said most people also don’t realize why a charge stays with them.

“The average person doesn’t realize that when charges are dropped, it’s their responsibility — they have to go and get their record cleaned,” Miller said. “How do you go about that? How does the average citizen go about that?”

The report also said the patchwork of agencies and reporting practices in the criminal justice system leaves a confusing final word on a person’s criminal outcome.

“The inconsistencies that were prevalent throughout the criminal history records by the state’s criminal justice system and by other agencies was significant,” Miller said.

The recommendations relate largely to employment because of its importance in success, Miller said.

“That unemployment creates that recidivism, which creates that circle of failure in job success,” he said.

While Mecum said he sympathizes with the view that hindering people seeking employment is generally bad, knowing an employee’s character is especially important for certain work.

“I see what they’re trying to do and I understand, but still, I think the employer has a right to know,” Mecum said.

“There’s all kinds of situations I’d be concerned about,” he added. “To say it’s not legal to follow up is a big deal.”
An employer hiring someone with access to money, for example, would want to know about criminal history, he said.

“The character of the individual employee is extremely important, but it’s going to depend a lot on what they’re around,” he said. “Some people will be very strict with it, some people won’t, and a lot of it will have to do with what job it is.”

Mecum, a former Hall County sheriff, also said the criminal justice process can both convict the innocent and acquit the guilty.

“It’s a two-way street,” he said.

He asserted that public employers like the county had as much — if not greater — obligation to hire sound employees.

“Particularly when it comes to government, you have a responsibility to the citizen of your county to protect the citizens of the county, so I think the government should still have the opportunity to look at that closely,” Mecum said. “You have a right to protect citizens, just like a business has a right to protect their clients and employees.”
Miller stressed that the committee was in no rush to craft and push legislation.

“Anytime you’re in this type of area — this venue — it’s better to go slow,” he said.

The governor’s office will likely examine the report and make its own recommendations, Miller said, in looking at the legislative future of expungement reform.


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