Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Columns

April 16, 2013

Once Democratic issue now one for state GOP

Indianapolis — Back in 2009, when then-candidate Matt Ubelhor was knocking on doors in the rural southern Indiana district he now represents in the General Assembly, he kept hearing the same story from countless constituents: They’d lost their jobs in a bad economy and couldn’t get another one because they couldn’t pass a background check that revealed some long-ago arrest or conviction.

Ubelhor knew the problem from the other side: In his many years as a manager of coal mines, he’d hired hundreds of people and had to turn away those with a criminal record — no matter how small the offense or how long ago it had occurred.

“I told myself, if I got elected, I was going to do something about it,” Ubelhor told me recently.

He has. The conservative Republican from Greene County is one of the co-authors of House Bill 1482, also known as the criminal-records expungement bill that was passed by both the House and Senate.

If signed by the governor, it’ll put Indiana with the majority of states that have created a mechanism for the courts to restore people to the legal status they had before they had a brush with the law.

House Bill 1482 doesn’t trigger an automatic delete key for past offenses. But it does put in place a process that people with long-ago, non-violent offenses can use to clear an arrest or conviction from their records. It goes far beyond the current criminal records “sealing” law, which only covers misdemeanors and some class D felonies and only shields those records from the general public’s view.  

House Bill 1482 also gives those people to whom it applies a way to answer no when a prospective employer asks if they’ve been arrested or convicted of a crime by requiring employers to ask the question: Have you been arrested or convicted of a crime that hasn’t been expunged?

A decade ago, the idea of allowing some ex-offenders the chance to wipe clean their criminal records was one pushed by liberal Democrats from urban areas, concerned that employers’ inquiries about past arrests were having a disproportionate impact on young black men.

But things have changed. Employment background checks are more common than ever before, more employers are routinely culling ex-offenders from their applicant pools, and more Americans have criminal records. (That’s true in Indiana too: Between 2000 and 2010, Indiana’s prison population went up by 47 percent. Most of those convictions were for low-level crimes.)

So more people in more districts like the one Ubelhor represents are facing the challenge of finding decent employment.

House Bill 1482 had some interesting conservative Republican champions. Among them: former deputy prosecutor, Rep. Jud McMillin of Brookville, and retired sheriff, Rep. Kevin Mahan of Hartford City.

But Ubelhor’s plea for support for the bill, delivered on the floor of the House, may have been the most persuasive because it was delivered by somebody who’s spent years making critical hiring decisions.

He told the story of one of the best employees he ever had: a 32-year-old Purdue grad with a wife and two young children who’d worked six months for Ubelhor on a temporary basis before a permanent job came open. Ubelhor wanted to hire the guy but couldn’t because of company policy.

Turns out the young man, as a teenager, had committed a stupid crime and served 18 months in prison.

“It was heartwrenching. Not just for him, but for me,” Ubelhor said, recalling the story recently.

“I’m a conservative Republican and as tough on crime as anybody,” he added. “But if Republicans are supposed to be about removing obstacles to opportunity, we don’t need to condemn people for life after they’ve done their time and paid for their crime. That’s just a roadblock to any chance for prosperity.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI newspapers in Indiana, including the Kokomo Tribune. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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