Dalton’s Tina Stanley achieved a milestone a few weeks ago when she was declared rehabilitated by the state parole board.
Dating back to 1993, her struggles with drug addiction led to Stanley committing a string of offenses ranging from shoplifting to conspiracy to defraud to methamphetamine possession. Keeping her nose clean since her two-year prison stint ended in 2009 earned her a pardon by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles.
It was a big moment, but more of a symbolic gesture for Stanley than it would be for most. She overcame some of the barriers that hold back many ex-offenders, including access to quality housing, jobs and educational opportunities.
The 57-year-old says she is fortunate that two judges ended her 15-year probation sentence early in 2014, allowing her to go to school to become a treatment facility counselor.
“I can tell others, ‘I did the right thing, you can do it too,’” Stanley said. “You just have to do the right thing, it is possible.”
For many of Georgia’s ex-offenders like Stanley, getting pardoned is the best recourse to escape the stigma of a criminal past. Last year, the parole board pardoned 467 people who stayed crime-free for at least five years.
Yet, while pardons show that a person is forgiven by the state, that doesn’t clear their criminal record like an expungement would. An expunged criminal conviction is sealed, or erased in the eyes of the law.
And people like Stanley and organizations such as the Georgia Justice Project say now is time to expand a law that prevents someone convicted of a crime from ever having their conviction and arrest records sealed.
“I don’t think if you’ve made a mistake, which I made, I don’t think you should serve a life sentence for that,” Stanley said. “People are needing employment, they’re needing housing and if they can’t get that, they’re going back to doing what they know.”
An expungement is only allowed in Georgia to remove an arrest record when someone was not convicted of that crime, and for some misdemeanor offenses, such as marijuana possession and shoplifting, that are committed before the age of 21.
Georgia is home to 4.2 million residents with some type of criminal history, according to the Atlanta-based nonprofit Georgia Justice Project, which is leading the Second Chance For Georgia Campaign to push for a new expungement law.
“We’ve been working for years on this specific legislation and we feel there is a chance to get it through this year,” executive director Doug Ammar said. “The idea is simple: if someone has been convicted of a crime at some point in their lives, it shouldn’t stay with them and haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
Expungement is supported by several statewide prosecutors’ associations and the members of former Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reform council.
Some oppose restricting public access to criminal histories held by the government, including organizations that advocate for transparency and increased access to public records.
Major details are still to be sorted out. Those include the length of time someone must wait to get their record expunged, the type of crimes covered under the law and how a victim could be involved in the expungement process, said Peter Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.
“We believe in the concept,” he said. “There’s no objection to looking at record restriction, expungement, the sealing of records.The question is what are the details?”
In 2018, the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform recommended that legislators consider expunging some kinds of misdemeanor and felony convictions. The council said certain crimes such as serious traffic, sex and family violence offenses should not be expunged.
The council’s report noted that 90% of employers perform criminal background checks on at least some of its applicants and 66% of housing providers said they would not let someone with a criminal history live on their property.
“The unfettered public access to criminal histories bars millions of Georgians from opportunities for a stable income and secure shelter, and these eliminated opportunities come with a cost,” the report said.
One of its council members is Dacula Republican Rep. Chuck Efstration who said everyone from law enforcement and prosecutors to civil rights organizations need to share a role in how this process plays out.
There are several versions of record restriction legislation in Georgia, including one that covers more serious crimes including sex offenses and one that proposes an automatic expungement system instead of letting a judge make the decision.
The Georgia Justice Project and others are working on new legislation that is expected to be considered in 2020.