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Louisiana’s high fees, cumbersome process for expungement could be curbed

Automation would cost the state more than $8.6 million

Louisiana legislators are considering automating a large portion of the state’s criminal record expungement system again. It’s a move that could allow thousands to scuttle old arrests and convictions that proponents of the change say prevent them from getting better-paying jobs.

The House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice on Wednesday forwarded House Bill 707, by Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, to the full House for consideration.

It only applies to criminal records since 1999 that are already eligible for expungement. The automation would not encompass municipal court records, where most traffic offenses and misdemeanors are handled. It would take effect in 2024. Under current law, people seeking to expunge their arrest or conviction records must pay at least a $550 fee per incident. Many also need to hire an attorney because the process is complicated. If something goes wrong, they lose out on that money because the fee is not refundable.

If Duplessis’ bill becomes law, people eligible for expungement would no longer have to initiate the process, pay for it or hire a lawyer to carry it out.

Louisiana’s expungement fee for criminal records is the most expensive in the country by a margin of $300, according to Vanessa Spinazola, executive director of the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana. Her organization recruits attorneys to carry out expungements on a pro bono basis for clients. Only 20% of people eligible for expungement in Louisiana take advantage of it, she said, in large part because they can’t afford it.

The legislation has widespread support in concept. A similar proposal was introduced last year, but legislators balked at the cost of it. Duplessis’ original expungement proposal was expected to cost at least $8.6 million over the next five years, according to a legislative fiscal analysis, though some changes to the bill may have adjusted the price tag slightly.

Some of the anticipated expenses include an update to the Louisiana State Police’s computer system ($1.7 million) and the hiring six new state police analysts ($476,000 annually). The agency also said it would need additional phones ($2,016), computer services ($7,164), office furniture ($9,600) and fax/printer machines ($7,000), according to their own estimates. The Louisiana Supreme Court would also have to upgrade its system ($1.2 million) and hire four new staff members. The Louisiana Clerks of Court Association estimates that every parish clerk’s office would need one additional person to deal with the influx of expungements if the bill passes. The bill would dump approximately 2.6 million criminal records into the expungement process, according to the clerk’s association. The clerks association has said they support the concept of automatic expungement, but they need to be able to hire enough staff to deal with the backlog.

The legislation would also cost the courts and law enforcement money not factored into the $8.6 million price tag. The $550 expungement fee – which would be erased under Duplessis’ bill – is split among state police ($250), sheriffs ($50), district attorneys ($50), and clerks of the court ($50). People with a drunk driving expungement would also no longer pay an additional $50 fee to the Office of Motor Vehicles.

The price tag on the proposal would normally be a deterrent to passing the bill, but Louisiana has billions of dollars of extra funding for it this year and a large portion of the automated expungement costs are one-time expenses that don’t recur. Duplessis is hoping to make the case that the automated expungement would be a good place to put a small portion of the extra money.

The Louisiana judiciary branch is also sitting on millions of dollars of reserve funding that could help cover the costs. “If there was ever a time to do it, now would be the time,” Duplessis said.

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