Thousands of Kentuckians erase their arrests and convictions every year by taking advantage of expungement laws that make it cheap and easy to bury their past mistakes. The laws — intended to help offenders wipe out minor convictions or more serious charges that end in acquittals or dismissals — confuse prosecutors and judges and are creating a system of unequal justice, a four-month Louisville Courier-Journal investigation found.
Because Kentucky doesn’t keep a database of expunged cases, the laws are being used to shield repeat offenders. Some defendants are being allowed to hide felonies in which they have admitted guilt. Some expunged cases that should be secret have been left in the open or were never processed because of sloppy record keeping and an explosion of requests that has overburdened some courts. Victims of crimes often aren’t notified that convictions are being expunged, despite a law that requires them to be among the first told when a defendant seeks to erase a case. The number of legally sealed criminal records in Kentucky has more than doubled in four years, driven in part by an increasing desire to shield such information from potential employers, lending institutions, and Internet databases. In the past two years, more than 12,000 criminal cases have been wiped off the state’s books as if they never existed. Forty states allow expungement of some cases but only 18, including Kentucky, allow some convictions to be sealed. Kentucky’s problems with expungements are happening amid rising concerns over employee violence and technology that has made checking people’s backgrounds cheaper and easier. Media organizations have lobbied against expungement statutes because they believe the public should be able to see a person’s entire criminal history.