"On a lot of job applications, the question is not whether you've been convicted, but whether you've been arrested," said England, a former Tuscaloosa city prosecutor who now represents the city as a Democrat in the state House of Representatives.
England is working on a bill, to be introduced in the next legislative session, that would allow people who've been arrested on suspicion of a crime — but not convicted — to apply to have the arrests stricken from their records.
Advocates of the proposed bill say it's clearly unjust to create a permanent record when someone is wrongly accused of a crime — but skeptics of the measure say setting the record straight isn't all that simple.
Forty-five states allow some sort of expungement of criminal records, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Most states will honor a request to strike the record of an arrest, if the arrested person is not convicted. Many states allow misdemeanor convictions to be expunged from the record, over time. And some allow expungement of some non-violent felony convictions.
In Alabama, the paths to a newly-cleared record are relatively few. Under state law, a convicted person can ask for expungement of the record if there's an error in the record itself. Minors' records are sealed, and so are the records of young adults when a court declares them youthful offenders. Drug courts and pre-trial diversion programs will allow some offenders to avoid a criminal record.
But state court records still document thousands of arrests that never ended in a conviction. England said that's a growing issue for average people as pre-employment background checks become increasingly common.
Even misdemeanor convictions shouldn't always remain on a person's record, said Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham. A disturbance between a feuding couple, she said, can lead to a conviction that ruins a person's career options for life.
"We're losing a lot of talent, and destroying households," she said. "Everybody makes mistakes, and they have to take responsibility. But when you get to the legal realm, these things have a larger impact."
England has proposed a number of expungement bills in recent years, none of which became law. But those bills covered expungements of both conviction records and arrest records. This year, he's splitting the bill in two, giving legislators a chance to vote on arrest records separately.
At least one local legislator is sympathetic but cautious.
"I'd want to look at that pretty closely," said Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville. "What are you talking about when you talk about clearing an arrest record? Someone who's been arrested. Charged? Put in jail? Found not guilty?"
Dial said his support for any such bill would depend heavily on the bill's wording.
"If you're talking about someone who gets arrested, and then the police say, 'Wait a minute, we've got the wrong man,' I can see that," he said. "When you go past that, I'd be very careful."
Matthew Wade, the chief deputy at the Calhoun County Sheriff's Office, said he "could go either way" on the expungement of arrest records.
Law enforcement agencies, he said, do have a use for complete criminal records that include the disposition of each case. Police can use that information to establish patterns of behavior, he said. But they know the difference between an arrest and a conviction, he said — a distinction that employers may not make.
But Wade isn't sure expungement is really possible these days. With arrests and convictions recorded in multiple databases — local, state and federal — there's always a chance a record could linger. And many arrests are reported in the press, which could create trouble for job applicants who tell employers they've never been arrested.
"It opens up a Pandora's box," he said.
English said the bill could generate revenue for the court system, through fees people would pay to have their records expunged. But that, too, is problematic. England said he started with a $250 fee in a bill he introduced in the last legislative session. Soon lawmakers had tacked on extra fees bumping the cost up to $600. England said any expungement law should waive fees for the indigent.
"One of my main goals is to make this accessible," he said.
The proposed bill could come to the Legislature during the next session in 2013.
State Capitol and statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star