by Sheila Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee courts are going to make it easier for people who have been arrested but never convicted of a crime to have their criminal records wiped clean.
A bipartisan group of legislators, judges and criminal justice officials gathered Tuesday to announce a statewide court initiative in which judges will ask eligible people if they want their records expunged.
Many people don’t know they have that right or face barriers to clearing their names, like taking time off work and going back to a courthouse to fill out paperwork, supporters of the initiative say.
The records can hurt people when they try to find a job, get a loan, find housing or get a professional license. Some lawmakers and others say people who are not guilty of crimes shouldn’t have to face hurdles when it comes to getting their records cleared.
“They’ve been found innocent, but they still have an arrest record haunting them,” said Rep. Harold Love, a Democrat from Nashville.
Bipartisan legislation introduced this year by Love and Sen. Steve Dickerson, a Republican from Nashville, would have required judges to automatically ask those eligible if they would like their records wiped clean. (Note: HB1752/SB1896 never came up for a vote, according to the legislative website.) However, the Administrative Office of the Courts agreed to help solve the problem by making the issue part of the Access to Justice campaign, which helps poor and needy people navigate their way through the justice system.
Tennessee law already allows people to get their criminal records wiped clean for free if their charges are dismissed or when they are found not guilty, but judges aren’t currently required to tell people they can do that. The new initiative will let people know they have that option so they can start the process, if they want to do so.
Court records show many are affected.
A lawsuit filed in Nashville last year said that more than 128,000 people in Davidson County alone would have been eligible to clear their names had it not been for barriers. Those people were charged with crimes but never convicted in cases from 2000 to 2012, said Daniel Horowitz, an attorney who represented three people who sued because of difficulty getting their records expunged. The lawsuit ended in a settlement where officials agreed to let people file paperwork to clear their records by mail.