Maryland Senators Debate Law to Erase Certain Felonies - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Maryland Senators Debate Law to Erase Certain Felonies

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - Some Maryland senators are growing impatient for a law that would enable people to erase certain felonies, or at least a greater range of misdemeanors, from their criminal records.

Bills to make that happen have failed in recent years. In a committee hearing Wednesday, Sen. Jamie Raskin said it's time to "bite the bullet" and make a decision.

The push comes amid a national wave of reforms that would lessen some effects of having a felony record. On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for states to allow convicted felons to vote, and several states now prohibit private employers from asking about felon status on initial job applications.

Current Maryland law allows "nuisance" misdemeanors, such as urinating in public" to be "expunged," or cleared, from a person's record.

One bill the Senate committee reviewed on Tuesday, sponsored by Sen. Joan Conway, would allow most felonies other than murder, kidnapping, and sexual crimes to be expunged. Others sponsored by Sens. Lisa Gladden and Ulysses Currie target misdemeanors.

A felony record can bar people from getting licenses as barbers, cosmetologists or electricians, among other professions, said Toni Holness, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. A recent study showed that 66 percent of colleges collect criminal background information when students apply.

Gladden said there are substitute teachers in her district who can't get full-time teaching jobs because of old criminal convictions.

Some of the state's top prosecutors and law enforcement officials agree the laws need revision, but some tense moments during Tuesday's hearing showed how tough it will be to reach a compromise.

Steven Kroll, executive director of the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association, criticized the newest bills for their piecemeal approach. He urged the creation of a task force that would draft a comprehensive reform bill. Besides expungement, this group would consider pardons and shielding. Shielding keeps convictions on the books but hides them from most employers.

"My belief is, we have to look at this globally, as to all three," Kroll said.

Another speaker Wednesday was Mark Matthews, founder of Clean Slate America, a Baltimore organization that helps convicts seek expungements. He said Maryland should consider a pardon system like Delaware's, where a governor-appointed panel reviews pardon applications. The governor "rubber-stamps" the panel's recommendations, and this leads to more pardons granted, he said.

Matthews said shielding is more appropriate for lower-level crimes. Like the prosecutors, he prefers larger-scale reform.

But their suggestions weren't well received.

Sen. Christopher Shank complained that Kroll has raised the same objection every year.

"A task force is not on the table," Shank said. "I don't think there's any support for a task force."

Raskin and Sen. Robert Zirkin agreed that it's time work out a bill, not conduct more research.

They asked Kroll to talk with other prosecutors and make a list of felonies they would consider adding to the expungement list. He promised to come back with a report from the prosecutors' committee.

Indiana passed a law in 2011 to allow expungement for low-level felonies, and Kentucky is considering a similar bill, said Nicole Porter, advocacy director at The Sentencing Project.

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