FRANKFORT (AP) — At least 62,000 convicted felons in Kentucky will have the opportunity to wipe their records clean in part because a 45-year-old man convicted of stealing car radios 27 years ago convinced a powerful Republican lawmaker to change his mind.
West Powell was just 18 years old when he decided his Chevrolet Cavalier deserved a better radio. He could not afford to buy one, so he convinced his older brother, Marvin, to help him steal some from an auto salvage yard in Campbell County, Kentucky, just south of Cincinnati.
They were caught, and Powell wound up with a felony conviction. He's had trouble getting and keeping a job ever since. He told his story to a committee of state lawmakers in October who were considering a bill that would let some felons erase their criminal records. It was the kind of hearing that typically features carefully crafted testimony that rarely if ever budges lawmakers off of entrenched partisan views.
But Powell's testimony was different. It had such an impact on Whitney Westerfield, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, that he reversed his long-held opposition on the spot. Before the meeting was over, he was sending messages to his Republican colleagues telling them they had to pass the bill.
"This guy has done what we ask everybody in the justice system to do: correct the behavior and don't do it again," Westerfield said. "We ought to be able to help that guy."
Powell spent a year in prison for violating his probation, where he said guards and fellow inmates told him he would be back.
"No I won't," Powell said.
He kept his word. For the next 27 years Powell lived a clean life with no arrests. But he's struggled to get by.
"I have this mark on me, it's like the mark of the beast or something," he said. "Every time you apply for a job they ask you have you been convicted. ... So you lie, you work two or three weeks, four weeks, then they find out and fire you. But three or four weeks of work beats no work. So I did it. I did it for years. Just hopping from job to job."
Now living in Ohio, he has a family and has gone back to school to become a physical therapist. He is scheduled to start his clinical rotations next year. But before he can do that, he has to pass a background check.
One night in October, he asked his brother, Marvin, for a different kind of favor: drive him to Kentucky to testify before Westerfield's committee on a proposal to allow certain convicted felons to erase their criminal records.
But the odds were long. For years, advocates had pushed for similar legislation, only to see it die in the Republican-controlled Senate. Westerfield was running for attorney general at the time, making it even more difficult for him to change his political positions. Westerfield lost the November 2015 race.
Two months later, Westerfield began working on the bill. The final version lists 61 specific felonies that may be vacated. Felons would have to wait five years after completing their sentences before asking a judge to vacate their judgments, and anyone with multiple convictions would be ineligible.
The bill passed the House and the Senate. Gov. Matt Bevin is scheduled to sign it into law Tuesday.
Democratic state Rep. Daryl Owens, the bill's chief sponsor who has been trying to pass it for at least six years, said Westerfield's change of heart was "critical" to its passage.
Powell said he did not know of Westerfield's full role until a reporter told him about it.
"This has been a cross to bear for many years for me," he said. "I'm glad that, you know, someone finally listened."