The pro-business argument to erase the arrest records of some felons 

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Carlos Phillips, president of the Greenville Chamber, used to work for the chamber in Louisville, Ky., when it was lobbying for a bill to expand the opportunities to have crimes expunged from an offender's record. Photo by Will Crooks.

For people with criminal records, finding a job can be hard.

Their job applications may go straight to the trash bin if they truthfully answer a question about whether they were ever convicted of a felony.

It usually doesn’t matter if the conviction was a drug charge or other kind of nonviolent crime decades ago when they were young and impressionable. They don’t get the chance to explain.

For years, sympathetic lawmakers and social justice activists have proposed changing South Carolina law to make it easier for people to have certain crimes expunged from their records. But those bills could never overcome the law-and-order argument of the opposition. None passed.

Enter the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, which began lobbying in favor of expanding expungement for the first time this past legislative session.

The chamber’s president, Carlos Phillips, formerly worked for the chamber in Louisville, Ky., at a time when it was leading a campaign to pass similar legislation. That bill ultimately became law thanks in part to the support of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

In South Carolina, Phillips and the Greenville Chamber took up an argument used in Kentucky: They reframed the debate as a workforce issue, arguing that expanding the range of crimes eligible for expungement would make thousands of people more employable at a time when many businesses find it hard to find enough workers.

That argument takes on more potency at a time when employers face the tightest labor market since the 1990s.

According to the state Department of Employment and Workforce, South Carolina’s unemployment rate was 4 percent in June, the lowest rate since December 2000.

“We can give folks a second chance, and we can provide a larger pool for employers to choose from, and that’s a win-win,” Phillips said.

In taking up the issue, the Greenville Chamber sought a united front from the state’s business community.

It lined up support from the Upstate Chamber Coalition, an alliance of 11 chambers to which it belongs, as well as the S.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.

The Greenville Chamber also worked on legal language with the S.C. Law Enforcement Division, which had opposed previous bills.

Chamber involvement made a “huge difference,” according to Ashley Thomas, an attorney with the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, a Columbia organization that advocates for low-income residents.

Thomas, who has lobbied for expungement bills for four years, said the business community was never involved in any meaningful way until this year.

“It’s been mostly law enforcement and prosecutors and folks like me who look at it from a systemic poverty issue,” she said.

Once the chambers got involved, “all of the negative voices were a little bit more muted,” she said. “It was very interesting to watch for somebody who’s been fighting this fight for a while.”

The chambers succeeded in getting their bill through the House by a vote of 103 to 0.

The measure stalled in the Senate, however, amid concerns by Sen. Karl Allen, a Greenville Democrat who doesn’t think it goes far enough.

Still, Jason Zacher, vice president for business advocacy at the Greenville Chamber, said he thinks the bill stands a good chance of passing next year.

“It has lots of support in the Senate,” Zacher said. “I think we can get it across the finish line next year.”

The bill favored by the chambers would expand expungement possibilities for first-offense drug possession, whether it’s marijuana, cocaine, or methamphetamine.

Offenders could apply for expungement following three years of good behavior.

SLED would continue to keep a record of their crimes, but it would not be available to employers or the general public.

Violent crimes are not covered, nor are drug dealing and driving under the influence of alcohol.

Allen, the senator from Greenville, knows the expungement issue well, having chaired a legislative committee that studied it.

He said the chamber-backed bill would not help the people most in need of expungement, because those people usually have more serious crimes on their records, especially drug dealing.

Allen said he wants to make sure all stakeholders are part of the discussion, which he said didn’t happen this past legislative session.

“The chamber is one stakeholder,” Allen said. “They are a very important stakeholder, and we need their support, but they are not the only stakeholder who has an interest and a voice.”

Expanding the range of crimes eligible for expungement beyond those included in the chamber-backed bill could prove to be politically problematic.

Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims’ Council, a Columbia nonprofit that advocates for crime victims, said she would fight any proposal to allow expungement for more serious crimes.

She said Allen favors expungement for carjacking “and all kinds of dangerous things.”

“Law enforcement and crime victims fight every one of those bills because we know they are a threat to public safety,” Hudson said.

She said she doesn’t buy the chambers’ argument that expungement is a workforce issue.

Businesses have a right to know about the criminal records of those they are thinking about hiring, Hudson said, and they can make their own decisions about whether to give job applicants a second chance.

“I know many, many business people who hire folks who have records, but they hire them fully knowing what their record is,” she said.

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