A decision by South Carolina House and Senate leaders to delay their return to Columbia means it will be at least another month before lawmakers take a up a veto from Gov. Henry McMaster of a bill meant to help ex-convicts more easily reintegrate into society.
McMaster last month vetoed Act 237, which would have expanded the types of nonviolent crimes eligible for removal from a criminal record history, a process known as “expungement.” Current state law only allows a person’s first minor offense to be expunged. The bill would have allowed additional offenses to also be covered if they were part of the same arrest, such as a person charged with multiple possession counts in the same incident.
House Speaker pro tempore Tommy Pope, R-York, said the bill had bipartisan support and the backing of the business community. “They’re trying to give the opportunity for people who’ve paid their debt to move back towards productive members of society in terms of seeking employment,” he said.
The bill passed the House in a 83-13 vote and the Senate by a 38-2 margin.
In his veto message, McMaster said he believes businesses have a right to know the background of a potential employee they are hiring. “Criminal history, like all history, should not be erased. It can be instructive, but it need not be destructive or determinative; where complicated, it can be contextualized,” his veto statement said. “I believe in the rule of law, but I also believe in grace, and I am cognizant of the challenges that individuals with criminal records face when reentering our communities and applying for jobs.”
Pope disagreed, saying a previous conviction is often enough to cost a former convict his or her shot at a new job. “We’ve got to strike some balances in society if we’re going to truly say… ‘X’ number of years punishment is a sufficient amount of time.”
The proposed law would also expunge criminal charges which are no longer specific crimes, but could be covered by other expungement-eligible offenses. Pope gave the example of a constituent who is currently ineligible for expungement because he was convicted to the no-longer-existent “Theft From a Vending Machine” rather than Petit Larceny.
Under the legislation, the State Law Enforcement Division would still maintain a database with the expunged charges, but that database would not be accessible to the general public or subject to criminal background checks.
Legislators were originally slated to return to the Statehouse in Columbia last week, but leaders decided to wait until June 27 after negotiators were unable to reach a deal on the state budget. The governor’s veto will also likely be taken up during that same special session. While the chambers had the votes to override the governor back when the bill passed, a similar 2012 bill failed after its veto by then-Gov. Nikki Haley as dozens of Republican lawmakers defected ahead of their party primary.