There are places around the world where the police can whisk you off the street and make you disappear.
There are jails where you can be held without hope of anyone ever knowing. There are dark holes where you can be kept indefinitely, where you can remain an anonymous prisoner until a bureaucrat or judge decides your fate.
That is not the case in the United States. Certainly, mistakes and abuses happen, but those are the exception, not the rule.
We have constitutional protections. We have laws that ensure due process and guarantee specific rights for those accused of crimes. And just as important, we have laws that ensure that our law enforcement and judicial system are open for public view, that records and documents of their actions are available to anyone who has an interest.
So, it disturbs me that a certain group of state senators have decided that it might be a good idea to remove some of these checks and balances and move us incrementally closer toward the type of country where criminal proceedings are kept secret.
Recently, the Senate Expungement Reform Study Committee – Sens. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus; Hardie Davis, D-Augusta; Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro; Butch Miller, R-Gainesville and Ronald Ramsey, D-Decatur – issued a report recommending a number of changes to state law that would make it easier for those with a criminal record to have their arrests and convictions hidden from the public.
A lot of what the committee recommends is understandable. Having a criminal record can be an impediment to finding stable employment or housing and Georgia’s records system makes it extremely difficult to have convictions legitimately removed. Many small jurisdictions still operate with paper records or with computer systems that aren’t connected to the Georgia Criminal Information Center.
Also, people who were arrested, but never prosecuted, often have trouble explaining away an unfortunate incident that can be dredged up from their past with a simple Google search.
The committee recommends creating uniform standards and providing more resources for better record keeping and simplifying the process for expunging certain nonviolent offenses after a period of good behavior.
But where it goes way off track is recommending that arrest and jail records be restricted from public view. This has more potential to do harm than good.
If you, or your son, or your niece – or a state senator – should happen to end up in jail for whatever reason, you should be able to find out about it. It shouldn’t be a state secret.
This not only protects the public, but it also protects the prisoner.
What the senators recommend would prevent you, or I or anyone else from calling the local jail to find out if someone was being held there and what they were being charged with.
It creates a situation that is ripe for abuse. Not only could people be taken into police custody without a public record, but it would make it easier for those with power and influence to avoid embarrassment and prosecution.
If no one knows you were arrested, who’s to know if you were set free without charge?
I’m disappointed in Hardie Davis and Jesse Stone if they think this is a good idea. I will be watching for any legislation that comes out of this report. If they cast any votes on this issue, at least we know that cannot be done in secret.