The Columbus Dispatch by Dennis Hetzel
June 12, 2017
As a lobbyist for the Ohio News Media Association, I sometimes see things in politics that make me want to cry, but I’ve only teared up once in seven years.
That happened April 26 at a hearing of the House Community and Family Advancement Committee. A young African-American man from Columbus, Defonta Little, was the witness. He courageously shared a horrific story of false arrest after being misidentified as his twin brother. He spent weeks in jail. His brother’s record keeps showing up as his. He testified that he lost a warehouse job and struggles to find work. Family members wept two rows in front of me. So did many on the committee. Others around me fought back tears.
You won’t find a more well-intentioned bill among any of the several hundreds the legislature is considering. So, why on earth would the Ohio News Media Association oppose the bill as written?
First, while the bill has many good features, it only is a symptom of a larger problem that it may not solve. Ohio laws already allow for sealing records in many situations, though it can be time-consuming and expensive for the person who wants the record sealed. Sealed records can accomplish the same goal as expungement with a huge difference: The government isn’t destroying evidence of its acts. Sealed records only are available in highly restricted circumstances, shouldn’t become public and aren’t supposed to be used against you.
However, other witnesses described a system badly broken. Government notification to agencies is too slow. Different agencies don’t communicate. Private companies that do background checks sometimes aren’t notified, or they’re sloppy about disclosure.
Here’s a parallel: Consider the impact of bad information that shows up on consumer credit reports and the headache involved in getting that fixed. Now, imagine applying for a job at a store and being rejected because a record falsely says you were arrested for armed robbery. Unfortunately, under H.B. 64, the same process failures could occur.
The problem with expungement, most urgently in the cases of false arrest, is that the government is shredding the evidence of its own mistakes. This is a huge concern, as the ACLU of Ohio has pointed out, in cases in which the practices and procedures of police officers are in question. The victims themselves may want these records preserved. [READ MORE]
Dennis Hetzel is the executive director of the Ohio News Media Association in Columbus and president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government.