American Truth: second chances

PADUCAH — We are a nation full of second chances. We forgive politicians, faith leaders and even actors when they commit a crime or misbehave.

If you’ve ever felt wronged by family or friends, you’ve probably given them a second chance, too.

But what happens when you face one problem after another as you work to get that second chance? The Declaration of Independence says you have a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

People like Bill Edmondson are still in search of that American Truth. On a cold March morning, he met up with me to talk about the person he was 20 years ago.

“I ended up with felony charges possibly looking at five years. Lying, stealing, cheating — all of those things. Nothing that I was proud of,” Edmondson said.

Bill Edmondson

Addicted to drugs, Edmondson’s behavior caught up with him. Before he was sentenced, he did serve some jail time for his felony drug arrest. Later, the judge granted him three years probation and mandatory rehab. It worked.

“A belief in a power greater than myself is what helped me through all of that,” Edmondson reflected.

Today he celebrates sobriety, but a reminder of his former self lurks in his mind. His felony drug charges are still public record.

“Not having that stigma on my name, it would mean the world to me, personally, to be able to clear my record,” Edmondson said.

That’s now possible in Kentucky thanks to a 2016 measure. Gov. Matt Bevin signed into a law a bipartisan measure allowing some nonviolent felons and those with misdemeanors to get a second chance by having their criminal records cleared.

However, criminal expungement is complicated and expensive — $40 just to get the paperwork, $100 filing fee per misdemeanor case, and a $500 filing fee for a felony. And, it’s not a sure thing, because a judge will decide whether to approve or deny your appeal.

Classes like ones sponsored by Kentucky Legal Aid educate people on the process. Catherine Fuller is an attorney who helps people understand the process to clear their record, and it leads to life changes.

“To give them a second chance at becoming a productive member of society. Really, bettering their lives in the community, obtaining better employment, better housing, a better education with student loans, and just an overall improvement of quality of life,” Fuller said.

The hardest part, sometimes, is landing a job.

Catherine Fuller of Kentucky Legal Aid addresses a class on criminal expungement

“And unfortunately employers sometimes see that on the criminal background check, and toss it in the trash,” Fuller added.

An additional barrier is the fee structure associated with expunging a criminal record.

“The $500 filing fee — it is one of the highest in the nation. Being $500, convicted felons have a difficult time coming up with this money. Most of them are earning minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, so $500 is a substantial amount of money for them,” Fuller said.

Since Kentucky’s law passed in 2016, roughly 1,400 requests for felony expungements have been filed, and roughly 1,300 have been approved. That’s a small number compared to the total number of convicted felons in Kentucky; 300,000 statewide and 100,000 who are eligible for criminal expungment.

“It’s problematic, and I think that’s why we need to get the information out there. Because people, apparently, don’t know about the process and that they’re eligible,” Fuller said.

Edmondson’s on a fixed income, and while his paperwork is ready to go, the $500 filing fee is keeping him from filing right now. That’s not to say it won’t happen in the future in his quest to live the American dream.

“Part of the fabric of America, home of the free, you know, second chances. Anybody can get a second chance, you know?” Edmondson said.

There’s also the public stigma of being a convicted felon. For example, it was very difficult to find someone who successfully went through the criminal expungement process and was comfortable sharing their story with us on camera.

Edmondson said that his faith in God, respect from family and a clean life are his reasons for living. And, at this point, just as important if not more important that getting his record cleared.

For detailed information on how to apply for criminal expungement, contact Kentucky Legal Aid at 1122 Jefferson St., Paducah, KY 42001, or call 270-442-5518. You can also go to their website.