FILE - Georgia state capitol building

Georgia state Capitol building in Atlanta

(The Center Square) – A bill that would increase the number of criminal records that can be sealed was approved unanimously Wednesday by the Georgia House.

Senate Bill 288 would allow certain misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies to qualify for expungement.

The legislation is "an important step toward criminal justice reform" in the state, said Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, who presented the bill Wednesday on the House floor. "It's a bill we can all agree on that will help millions of Georgians."

More than 4 million Georgia residents had a criminal record in 2016, according to the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO). If the bill becomes law, Georgia will join 41 other states that have eased record sealing restrictions.

The measure would restrict access to the criminal records of defendants who have not committed additional crimes in four years. In addition to violent crimes, sexual offenses are excluded from the qualified list.

Law enforcement agencies and courts still would have access to the records.

Proponents of the bill said it would decrease recidivism rates and allow more Georgians to join the workforce.

Buzz Brockway, GCO's vice president of public policy, said in a statement the change in the expungement law is more crucial than ever as the state faces the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"For many Georgians, the economic shock caused by coronavirus has meant job loss and financial hardship," he said. "But think of the ... Georgians with a criminal record who are in the same situation. For them, the path forward is seemingly insurmountable."

SB 288 passed the House, 159-0. It now heads back to the Senate for final approval.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for five years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.