The criminal records of some one-time offenders who stay out of further trouble would automatically be sealed and unsearchable by the general public under a bill that cleared the Texas Senate Tuesday.
Senate Bill 1902 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, would expand who's eligible for a so-called order of nondisclosure to include one-time offenders who complete their jail or probation term and don't commit another violent or sexual crime.
The so-called "second chance" bill would allow people with isolated criminal convictions to put their past behind them without having to disclose their records, supporters say.
But some lawmakers worried that the legislation would deny the public information it needs, and prevent employers from screening potential candidates.
"I look at it as if I did something I wasn't supposed to, the criminal justice system has persecuted me ... and that should be enough," said Perry, speaking on the Senate floor. "It shouldn't be something that haunts me for the rest of my life."
The bill, supported by fiscal conservatives and groups such as Empower Texans, would allow an offender to choose if they wish to disclose their criminal record to employers or landlords. The record would remain available to certain law enforcement and criminal justice agencies, as well as financial, healthcare and educational agencies.
Now, only individuals whose felony or misdemeanor charges were dismissed after they successfully completed deferred adjudication are eligible for an order of nondisclosure. According to Perry, that excludes a large group of offenders who have been convicted and either jailed or required to perform community service, from making the same request.
State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, called the legislation "thoughtful." Texas has gained a national reputation as a state that is cutting crime, recidivism and criminal justice spending, he said. Perry said that this bill was intended as another step in that direction.
But for state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, the only member of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice to vote against the bill, the legislation presents a risk to employers hiring people to work with children or handle money in a private business.
"In your bill, [employers] could pay to have criminal history check run and would believe they were hiring someone who had a clean record, and in fact they are someone who has just been released from jail for stealing a lot of money," Huffman said. She suggested a review process would be more appropriate than automatically sealing records. “This bill goes too far and there will be policy implications and unintended consequences," Huffman warned.
But Perry emphasized that a criminal record could act as a barrier keeping some Texans from landing a job. He believes that a limited expansion of the current nondisclosure laws is an important gesture of goodwill that could help offenders get back on their feet.
"Some people are calling this a second chance bill," Hall said, questioning Perry.
“I call it redemption,” he responded.
The bill passed with a vote of 25 to 6. It now heads to the House.