Author: Cole Zercoe
By Jamie Self The State
COLUMBIA, SC — Jerry Blassingame of Greenville was flagged during a routine background check at his child’s school last year after being the president of the school’s parent-teacher association for years.
School leaders had unearthed his criminal drug convictions from the 1990s.
“‘Well, I’m PTA president for the school. Are y’all going to stop me from being the PTA president?’” Blassingame recalls telling school officials.
This time, the conversation about his past brought no harm to Blassingame — the 54-year-old is still PTA president. School officials told him they knew he was a good person. He was pardoned for the crimes in 2005, though his public criminal record would live on.
But for many former inmates, the criminal acts in their past often translate into lost jobs, education and housing opportunities long after they have paid their debts to society, Blassingame and others say. That’s because those crimes still show up on background checks run by potential employers, landlords and others.
To help some ex-offenders, S.C. lawmakers recently made it easier for the convicted to erase crimes from their publicly available records. This year, the state expanded the list of convictions eligible for expungement — the process by which a charge or conviction is removed from someone’s public record. Most notably, that list now includes ways to expunge multiple related offenses if they carry no more than 30 days and a $1,000 fine, and first offense convictions for possession with the intent to distribute drugs, including cocaine, crack and meth.
The law has critics in high places.
“Criminal history, like all history, should not be erased,” said S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster when he vetoed the legislation in May, adding the new law would blindside employers who deserve to know the background of the people they’re hiring.
”Second changes should be freely given when individuals have paid their debt to society; however, forgiveness should be informed by fact and should not be forced upon unwitting participants and prospective employers,” McMaster said.
Still, the Legislature overrode the veto and the bill became law.
While celebrating, advocates of the bill say it did not go far enough. The state should allow former convicts who are granted pardons for their crimes to have those offenses removed from their public records for good, they say.
For Blassingame, his work of nearly two decades as the leader of a nonprofit helping former inmates find jobs and housing, transitioning to productive members of society, precedes him these days. Clearing his record, aside from avoiding the occasional awkward conversation, would do him little good at this point.
But the same is not true for younger citizens trying to recover from convictions in their more recent pasts, he said.
“We need to practice what true forgiveness is,” Blassingame said. “We all have committed some type of crime or some type of sin … It’s unfair to people who have paid their debt to society to continue serving a life sentence under that crime.”
Businesses want cleaner records
Advocates of the new expungement law include a coalition of business and industry leaders who say employers would be more willing to hire former inmates if the crimes they committed long ago were not publicly available.
Long-haul trucking is one of the sectors hoping to benefit from the recent change in the law. The state’s employment agency predicts a shortfall of roughly 3,000 drivers during the next decade, according to a 2018 economic report. Yet employers only seriously consider two or three applicants out of every 100, said Rick Todd, president of the S.C. Trucking Association.
If a truck driver gets into a wreck and injures another driver, the lawyers representing the other party will dig up whatever they can on the trucker. And if there’s anything in that trucker’s past, even if he has had a stellar record otherwise, it will be held against him in lawsuits that often seek hefty damages, Todd said.
For that reason, employers are reluctant to hire “less than perfect” drivers, like those with criminal pasts.
“We’re reaching the crisis stage. If you talk to any business that operates or depends on trucking services, they’re feeling the pinch,” Todd said of the driver shortage.
Blassingame said he can attest to the struggle to re-enter society experienced by the previously incarcerated, living in the shadows of their criminal past, he said.
He couldn’t get a federal education grant when he got out of prison. He has had trouble getting jobs. His plan to continue studying architecture and engineering was out of reach because his convictions could present stumbling blocks to receiving professional licenses, he said.
So he decided to start a nonprofit. Hiring ex-inmates, the nonprofit tears down old houses and salvages the wood to make furniture.
“We reclaim wood and reclaim lives,” he said, adding his nonprofit gives people who just got out of prison a warm place to sleep, job opportunities and housing, trying to make them productive, independent citizens. He’s helped 175 previously incarcerated people find stability in the past four years, he said.
Finding work can be a big barrier to success for former inmates. “The hospitality industry is probably the most friendly,” he said. “After that construction, and then small, family-owned businesses who are not caught up in the corporate world with all the rules and regulations,” he said.
Critics of expanding the state’s forgiveness laws say the recent changes will hurt the public.
“What we’ve done now is saying that if you are a hiring entity — if you are dealing with vulnerable adults, if you’re dealing with children, if you’re dealing with anything where money is transacted — that you can’t get their record,” said Laura Hudson, a victims’ advocate who fought adding additional convictions to the list eligible for expungement.
Before the new law passed, the state allowed first-offenses carrying no more than 30 days and a $1,000 fine to be expunged if the person had no more convictions for three years. The state also offers pre-trial interventions for some non-violent, first-time offenders as well as alcohol and traffic education programs that, if successfully completed, can help offenders avoid convictions and clear their records of any arrests. Juveniles and “youthful offenders,” age 17 to 24, also could get non-violent first-offenses off their records.
The most significant change in the new law, Hudson said, is the expansion of expungement eligibility to first-offense convictions for possession with the intent to distribute. Supporters of that provision note a person must be crime free for a long time — 20 years — to be eligible for expungement on the possession with the intent to distribute convictions.
Allowing multiple convictions that arise out of the same criminal act to be expunged also sets a bad precedent, she said.
“It’s a very dangerous thing to the public,” she said.
Hudson also doesn’t buy the argument that felons can’t get jobs because of their records. Former inmates get jobs all the time, she said.
“Proponents say people deserve a second chance, people deserve to get jobs. But people who have served their time have gotten jobs,” she said. “With the full knowledge that they have those records, people hire them anyway.”
Clean slates on the way?
Blassingame said under the new law, one of his six charges might be eligible for expungement now, but it won’t do him much good, beyond being a symbolic gesture. Still, he hopes the changes can help others.
“It’s encouraging to others who are coming behind me to know that there is hope,” he said of the small win. “A lot of people feel there is no hope and they hate the system. They don’t want to vote or get involved in politics.”
It’s unlikely state lawmakers will agree to more dramatic changes to the law, including granting pardon recipients clean slates.
One reason is logistics, said Republican state House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, a York attorney, former prosecutor and the primary sponsor of the recent expansion of the expungement law.
The state pardons about 400 people a year, or about 64 percent of people who are eligible.
The numbers are high, putting South Carolina behind only Alabama, and in line with Connecticut, in terms on the sheer number of pardons the state grants restoring all rights, including gun rights, according to the Restoration of Rights Project, which tracks state policies on pardoning criminal convictions.
“Let’s say in 2020 we started saying every pardon got expungement. The problem you’ve got then is everybody that had one before them, no one is going to agree to automatically let them do it, “ Pope said.
“The saving grace of the pardon system arguably as it exists now is that you still know what they were charged with. There’s some comfort there,” he said.
Proposals sponsored by state House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, would retroactively make pardon recipients eligible for expungements.
The Columbia defense attorney says he wants to sue the state on grounds that it should have been granting expungements to pardon recipients all along. He says the intent of the law was to restore all rights with a pardon.
In the meantime, the state could give judges more leeway in granting pardons and expungements conditionally at sentencing. For example, a judge could promise an offender that his record will be cleared if he completes his sentence and lives crime free for a set number of years.
That approach would cut down on the number of applicants seeking pardons from the state, he said.
One lawmaker says the state’s forgiveness laws should not be expanded in big steps. The state already is pretty generous is forgiving and forgetting criminal records, said state Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, and another former solicitor. About 92,000 people accused or convicted of crimes in South Carolina had their records expunged last fiscal year, according to the State Law Enforcement Division.
Hembree said he would consider adding additional convictions to the expungement list later — maybe some crimes could be added to the 20-year wait list — but he wants to see the new law in action for awhile. Outright clearing criminal records, however, is likely a no go, he said.
“We want folks to get on the straight and narrow path, to get their criminal stuff behind them, try to be a productive citizen. We don’t want repeat business. But you’ve got to do it in a responsible way,” he said. “You can’t just pretend that this stuff didn’t happen.”
Chairman Henry Eldridge of the state’s Paroles and Pardons board said the board’s process certainly would change if they are asked to consider expungements alongside pardons.
“If we’re going to expunge, and it is going to be never seen again, and not only forgiven but forgotten by the state, then I would expect the board to look a little bit deeper into pardons and expungement,” he said.
“The question would be, would the number of pardons go down because of the extra scrutiny on the case? I would be looking at cases harder. I’m not going to say I would pardon less or more.”
One thing is for sure, he added: “We help a lot of people on pardon day. There’s a lot of people, we’re doing a lot of good, and I don’t want to lose that.”