My good friend, Daniel Horwitz, has done something unprecedented and amazing. Earlier this year, he filed a class action lawsuit to have the criminal charges of 128,000 Nashvillians expunged from the Davidson County General Sessions Court records. If successful, these Nashville residents will have a combined total of approximately 350,000 criminal charges wiped clean from their criminal histories.
What does this mean for the affected class members and Tennessee businesses? Put simply, jobs.
Individuals affected by the suit can apply for jobs in Tennessee without the stigma of a criminal record. To say there will be 128,000 new employees is probably an exaggeration, as many of those affected will likely already have jobs. But many others will be eligible for jobs or be able to advance to new positions from which they were previously excluded due to their criminal histories.
The suit will also benefit Tennessee businesses. If the suit is successful, businesses will have access to a large pool of otherwise qualified individuals who were excluded from gainful employment or better positions due to their criminal histories. It goes without saying that the ability of more businesses to hire more qualified individuals is better for everyone.
The lawsuit does not seek to expunge the records of people convicted of crimes. Rather, only those charged with, but not convicted of crimes will be affected. These include people whose charges were dropped or entered into a plea agreement which did not result in a conviction, such as diversion.
The goal is the mass implementation of a Tennessee law which permits individuals charged with crimes but not convicted to have the records expunged free of charge. The problem is many people believe their records are automatically expunged, unaware that they have to file a petition with the Criminal Court Clerk’s office. Or, they simply do not have the resources or time to file the petition to have their records expunged. As a result, many innocent individuals still have criminal charges on their record which may show up during an employment background check.
If granted, Daniel’s class action suit will give the Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk’s office the legal authority to begin clearing the backlog of expungement-eligible cases without the need for each individual to file a petition.
The case is pending before General Sessions Judge Rachel L. Bell. On September 3, 2015, Judge Bell met with 10 government agencies involved in processing expungements, including the Davidson County District Attorney and Public Defender and the Criminal Court Clerk. These agencies all support a plan for expunging the criminal records and putting innocent individuals back on equal footing with citizens without criminal records. The largest concern, however, is how to implement that process and finding the resources to pay for the mass expungement.
Judge Bell is expected to issue a decision on November 9, 2015. If successful, I expect we will start seeing these cases all over the state of Tennessee and in other states which have similar expungement laws.
For individuals with criminal convictions, Tennessee recently implemented a “Certificate of Employability” statue. As I discussed in a previous post, the statute makes it easier for ex-convicts to gain employment and for employers to hire them.