Effort to bring automatic criminal records expungement to Louisiana crumbles again

By: - June 10, 2022 3:45 pm
prison corridor

A dispute between Louisiana House Democrats and Republicans tanked a bill that would have allowed certain criminal records to be expunged automatically. (Canva image)

Louisiana legislators once again failed to pass a new law that would allow criminal records to be expunged automatically. 

A dispute between House Democrats and Republicans tanked a bill that could have made it easier for thousands of Louisiana residents to find housing and employment. Similar legislation died during the last few days of the lawmaking session in 2021. 

House Bill 707, from Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, would have set the state up to start automatically clearing people’s arrest and conviction records in 2024, though with some limitations.

Only arrests and convictions after 1999 would have been eligible. Records from municipal and city courts would have been excluded.

Currently, a person who wants to have their criminal record expunged has to pay a $550 fee to complete the process, and they usually have to hire an attorney to assist them. Some violent offenses, such as homicide, aren’t eligible for expungement. 

Advocates for formerly incarcerated people and some district attorneys have been pushing to simplify expungement for years. Not being able to afford or navigate the complicated process can block someone from a new job or promotion. It can also make it harder to secure housing.

Proposals to automate Louisiana’s expungement process have had wide support from both Democrats and Republicans in Legislature. They have also run into roadblocks over their cost and the workload they would create for police, court clerks and the Louisiana Supreme Court. The state would need to spend money to build a computer program to make automatic expungement possible. 

An initial version of Duplessis’ bill would also have eliminated the $550 expungement fee completely, which goes to the Louisiana State Police, clerks of courts, sheriffs and district attorneys. The clerks and state police, in particular, also said they would have to hire more staff to deal with the automated process.

Yet Duplessis and others were optimistic about his legislation getting final approval this year, especially after more than $3 million to construct an automated expungement process was added into the state budget proposal last month. That was taken as a sign that concerns over cost had been adequately addressed.

The legislation started to run into problems again though when Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bodi White, R-Central, opposed the proposal because, he said, people convicted of crimes should not be able to get their records expunged without paying a fee.

The Senate Finance Committee, which White leads, ended up amending Duplessis’ legislation to require some money be taken out of the tax refund of every person who had their arrest or conviction record expunged under his bill.

Proponents of automated expungement weren’t sure this would be possible without more funding. It’s not clear the state Department of Revenue has a mechanism to easily garnish tax refund dollars to be used for this purpose.

The Senate’s Republican leadership also didn’t move Duplessis’ legislation on the Senate floor before June 3, when the number of votes it required to pass automatically went up. The bill also got caught up in an unrelated fight between House Democrats and Republicans.  

In the last days of the session, Democrats had more leverage than usual over the Republicans because the Legislature’s GOP leadership had not moved several conservative lawmakers’ bills far enough along in the process to allow them to pass without some votes from Democratic or independent lawmakers.

When Democrats took advantage of this leverage – and started blocking Republican bills – GOP legislators retaliated by blocking Democratic bills as well. One was Duplessis’ automated expungement legislation, which couldn’t get the Republican support it needed to pass before the session adjourned Monday.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.