Miss. proposal would clear some felony convictions

Published 10:48 pm Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mississippi House members argued angrily about the meaning of Christian compassion Tuesday as they considered a bill that would expand judges’ ability to wipe some felony convictions off people’s records.

House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said that in the most famous trial in world history, a man was convicted and sentenced to death without being given a second chance.

“That man was Jesus Christ,” Blackmon said. “We are here today talking about whether or not we want to give people a second chance, and this man gave all of us a second chance.”

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Blackmon said arguments some House members made against the bill go “against Jesus Christ” and the message of forgiveness.

Republican Rep. Greg Snowden of Meridian sprang up from his chair and yelled his objection.

“That’s an outrageous comment and slurs the people in this House,” Snowden said.

The bill passed the House 78-41 — but it was sent back to a committee for negotiators to make some changes sought by prosecutors. The latest version of the bill would allow district attorneys to keep nonpublic records of the cleared conviction. The records would be kept “for law enforcement purposes only,” according to the bill.

Both chambers must approve the new version of the bill before it could go to Gov. Haley Barbour.

Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, said several business people have called the Capitol to object to making it easier for anyone to ask a judge to erase certain convictions.

“They’re worried that they could be hiring people who are embezzlers,” he said.

Brown said he’s willing to forgive some crimes committed when people are “young and stupid,” but not when they’re older.

Current state law already allows people to have their records cleared of convictions for certain crimes, such as shoplifting, that occur before they’re 26.

Under the bill that’s up for consideration, certain offenses, such as drunken driving, crimes against children or illegal drug distribution, could not be removed from someone’s record.

Public officials convicted of crimes related to their office also would not be eligible to erase the convictions.

House Corrections Committee Chairman Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, said some people have trouble finding steady jobs because of crimes they committed decades earlier.

“I get phone call after phone call after phone call from people that committed minor violations,” Malone said. “They go down and fill out a job application. When they check it yes, it automatically is not even looked at.”

Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, said two years is not long enough for someone to wait before having a conviction cleared. Formby said his car has been broken into three times in the past four years in Jackson, and he’s still angry that people stole his belongings, including a class ring.

“I’d really rather they walked up and punched me in the face,” Formby said. “I’d get over that.”

The bill is House Bill 619.