Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

This story was originally published by the Louisiana Illuminator.

Louisiana lawmakers scuttled a bill last week that would have helped thousands of Louisiana residents wipe out criminal records that can prevent them from getting better-paying jobs. The Louisiana State Police and Louisiana Supreme Court raised last-minute objections to the proposal.

The Louisiana Senate Finance Committee shelved House Bill 604 — which took two years to pull together — without taking a vote on the legislation. Senate Finance Chairman Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, said he was in favor of the bill, but he indicated that opposition from the State Police and Supreme Court was an obstacle for several members of the committee. The cost of implementing the proposal was also cited as a barrier. 

“They sabotaged it,” said  Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, of the State Police in an interview Friday. “The agency that beats the hell out of people and covers it up doesn’t want to make time to expunge people’s records.”

James was referring to the attempted coverup of the beating of Ronald Greene, a Black man who died in State Police custody after troopers beat and stunned him outside Monroe, Louisiana two years ago. 

State Police initially said Greene had been killed in a car crash. Then, the agency said that troopers had struggled with Greene and he died on the way to hospital. More recently, State Police body camera footage of troopers beating Greene on the night of his death leaked publicly, suggesting they might have been responsible for killing him.

The video leak came after two years of the agency refusing to release the same recording publicly. State police initially said the agency couldn’t release the footage because of an ongoing federal investigation, but it ended up reversing itself — releasing that video and others from that night after two days of critical media coverage. 

“If State Police put just a fraction of the energy they put into covering up murder into trying to help [automatic expungement] happen, they would have made it happen,” said James, who is chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Lawmakers, Black and White, have said they found Greene’s beating upsetting, but they haven’t been willing to question the agency publicly about what happened to Greene. 

Even as that controversy unfolded, State Police largely retained its credibility with lawmakers. The agency was granted some budget requests, and legislators said they were reluctant to vote for the expungement overhaul if State Police opposed it.

“I want to support this,” said Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, at a hearing on the bill last month. “I don’t want to go against the State Police. I love the State Police.”

State Police said they were in favor of the expungement proposal but didn’t think they could afford to implement it. They also wanted the state to launch a pilot program initially, so they had time to work out any kinks in the new process.

“This bill will impact my family,” State Police Superintendent Col. Lamar Davis told the Senate Judiciary C Committee last month. But Davis added: “We get unfunded mandates, and we get mandates which we do not have the capability to handle.” 

The legislation, sponsored by James, would have automated the expungement process for people who have arrests or criminal convictions that are already eligible to be wiped from the record. This proposed automated process would have come at no cost to the person whose arrest or conviction is expunged. 

Under current law, people seeking to expunge their arrest or conviction records must pay at least a $550 fee per arrest or conviction. Many also end up hiring an attorney because the process is complicated. If something goes wrong, they lose out on that $550 because the fee is not refundable. 

“I don’t do them in my law office. That’s how difficult they are and how complicated they are,” James said of expungements. 

Louisiana’s expungement fee for criminal records is the most expensive in the country by a margin of $300, said 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 percent of people eligible for an expungement in Louisiana take advantage of it, she said, in large part because people cannot afford it.  

If James’ bill had become law, people who were eligible for expungement would no longer have had to initiate the expungement process, let alone pay for it or hire a lawyer to carry it out. 

State Police and the Supreme Court — who hold criminal conviction and arrest records — would have been obligated to wipe out the person’s record automatically when it became eligible for expungement. They would also have had to notify local district attorneys, sheriffs and clerks of court about the records purge. 

No one argued that putting the proposed automated system in place would be easy or cheap. In Louisiana, the different court systems and law enforcement agencies don’t have an electronic system for sharing records with each other. In order for the Supreme Court and State Police to share expungement data, they would have to build from scratch a system to do so. 

In October, the Legislature passed a new law during their special session allowing State Police to share criminal record data with a legislative expungement task force and Code for America, a nonprofit group offering to help with the technology side of implementing the proposal

But James said the State Police never turned over the requested data to the task force and nonprofit, which made drafting legislation for automated expungement difficult.  

Most state agencies don’t ignore the Legislature when they request data. James said State Police weren’t being held to the same standards as other government departments. 

The State Police said the agency never turned over the requested information because no one has paid the State Police for the $54,000 it cost the agency to compile the information.

“As no funding source was identified, LSP could not provide the de-identified data,” said Capt. Nick Manale, a spokesperson for the agency, in a written statement this week.

The state had enough extra cash to cover this expense. It is ending this budget cycle with a sizable surplus worth tens of millions of dollars — so much so that the lawmakers are spending the money on local earmarks like a skate park, town hall renovation, cooling fans at a sports complex and new equipment for several small law enforcement agencies. Most of those allocations cost more than the $54,000 the State Police would have needed to cover its data bill. Yet the expense wasn’t included in a spending plan.

Money continued to be cited as an issue with the automated expungement proposal as it worked its way through the legislative process before it died. In the next budget cycle alone, the original iteration of James’ proposal would have cost State Police $2 million, the Supreme Court $2.4 million and local district attorneys $9.8 million to implement.

This did not account for the money these law enforcement groups would lose once expungements came free of charge. Of the $550 fee for an expungement currently, State Police get $250; clerks of court receive $200; sheriffs receive $50; and district attorneys receive $50.

James whittled down his proposal to try and appease State Police and the Supreme Court, but that meant some people would have been left out of the automated expungement process had it been approved. He excluded expungements of city, municipal and traffic court records.

Of the remaining records, he also made the only ones eligible for automated expungement those that have dispositions — meaning the district attorney has included the “final outcome” of the arrest or conviction on the record. This encompasses just a quarter of all conviction and arrest records.

James and advocates had also agreed to only implement automated expungement to records going back to 1975 at the request of State Police. The backlog would have been handled gradually. The process would have started in 2023, but only for affected records going back to 2012 in the first year. State Police and the Supreme Court would have been given six years to clear the total backlog. 

The changes to the legislation brought down the cost. In the latest version of the bill, the automated expungement would have cost State Police $1.8 million and the Supreme Court $2.4 million. The cost to clerks of courts and district attorneys was significantly lower. After an initial surge in spending, the overall cost of doing automated expungement would also have dropped annually as the backlog of records cleared.

Davis said State Police still weren’t able to afford the proposal. He told legislators last month that  if James’ bill passed his agency might be forced to reduce the size of its next police academy class — a priority for several lawmakers — or cancel the purchase of new police vehicles. 

But lawmakers could have absorbed the entire cost in next year’s budget. The Legislature’s budget plan includes $17 million in unallocated funding that can still be spent. The Supreme Court is also sitting on millions of dollars of reserves that could be used for this purpose if it wanted to do so. 

But State Police did not want to be responsible for transmitting expungement information to other law enforcement agencies, such as the clerks of courts, sheriffs and district attorneys.

James and advocates said they couldn’t make a compromise on that point. State police hold most of the criminal conviction and arrest records in the state. If they expunge those records but don’t tell other law enforcement agencies, people won’t see any benefit. Most commercial background companies use clerks of court — for example — to check for criminal records.

“If the clerks of court do not receive this data, then you have spent $2 million for no one to get this information,” said Whittington with the Justice and Accountability Center for Louisiana.