INDIANAPOLIS — Damon Lane has worked for Indianapolis mayors Greg Ballard and Joe Hogsett. His community service has earned him too many awards to count, he said.
But there have been times when none of that mattered. He’s 49 now and said he is still paying for the very serious felony crimes he committed as a youth.
“I know there's certain crimes out there that, you know, people would be horrified if they didn't know,” Lane said. “But when we're talking about you know, like drugs or you know, some of these other crimes, like a guy shouldn't have to deal with that for the rest of his life.”
Hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers have some kind of criminal record that hangs over their heads when they seek jobs or try to rent an apartment.
Indiana law lets people get those old criminal records expunged after they've stayed out of trouble for five or eight years, depending on the offense. Yet for those who have been convicted of serious crimes, an expungement in Indiana won't hide those crimes from public eyes.
“You can expunge a high-level felony, but it still shows up on your records marked as expunged,” said Carrie Hagan, an associate professor at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
“The whole record is still there. You'd have to scroll through the entire thing to see it marked as expunged.”
Hagan runs the IU law school’s Civil Practice Clinic, which focuses primarily on helping low-income Hoosiers get their criminal records expunged.
Second chance law
Since 2013, Indiana’s second-chance law has allowed Hoosiers to ask a judge to expunge their criminal records after five crime-free years for misdemeanors and after eight years for most felonies.
Some crimes are never forgiven. Sex offenses, homicides and other violent crimes do not qualify for expungement; neither do public officials convicted of official misconduct.
Under Indiana law, expungements for misdemeanors and low-level felonies truly do hide records from the public, Hagan said. But Indiana’s law falls short of its promised “second chance" for those more serious offenses because they are not completely hidden from public view.
“The whole point of the law is to give second chances,” Hagan said. “You're not really getting a second chance if you're not really expunging something. It still shows up.”
An expungement on a person's record means the former offenders no longer have to check “yes” on job or housing applications that ask if they’ve been convicted of a felony. That box, experts say, is often a huge barrier for many ex-offenders who are trying to re-enter society.
Researchers from the Brennan Center for Justice in 2021 found that the roughly 600,000 people who leave prisons every year in America face "collateral consequences" blocking them from jobs, housing and fundamental participation in our political, economic and cultural life.
Ex-convicts often don't qualify for scholarships, financial, military service and professional licenses. Felons can't vote or hold political office. Some can't get a driver's license. Colleges are less likely to accept them.
"These 'collateral consequences' powerfully illustrate the excessively retributive nature of American criminal justice," Brennan Center researchers wrote.
"Truly ending mass incarceration will require eliminating these consequences as well, ensuring that we welcome people with a criminal record back into society and, ultimately, shifting our criminal justice paradigm away from retribution and towards restoration."
This has a lasting impact on tens of thousands of Hoosiers like Lane who have committed felonies. Last year alone, prosecutors filed nearly 20,000 serious felony cases, crimes that include battery, check fraud and burglary.
A young man's redemption
As a young man, Lane committed some very serious crimes. He was 14 when he started selling cocaine in the west-side Indianapolis neighborhood of Haughville.
Drugs led to guns and violence. By age 17, Lane served separate sentences for shooting and wounding two people. At 19, a judge sentenced Lane to 10 years in prison on drug charges.
“I was just crazy. I just did the craziest things you know, you know,” Lane said. “If it was any drama, you know, I was the first one in.”
Lane was behind bars from the age of 19 to 24.
Prison, he said, gave him time to think. He read books for the first time in his life. He started doing the financial math, comparing what he earned selling drugs to what he lost sitting in prison. It wasn’t worth it, he realized.
Lane was released from prison in December 1996 and worked for PACE Indy, a nonprofit that helps ex-offenders find jobs. He became a mentor helping other ex-offenders rebuild their lives.
In 2012, Lane went to work for the Indianapolis mayor's Office of Ex-Offender Re-Entry. He left that job in 2019, but still visits inmates and mentors ex-offenders through a non-profit organization.
A judge expunged Lane's criminal record in 2014. Lane hasn’t committed a crime in more than 20 years but said he still feels like he's a felon. No matter his awards, his accomplishments, he said those felonies haunt him because they still can be viewed in background checks.
And even though an expungement means he legally can check no on application forms, he still fears that someone will find the record and assume he's being dishonest.
“That dark cloud,” Lane said, “always looms over my head when it comes to ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’”
'Something they can earn'
Troy Riggs has been a police chief and public safety official for more than 30 years in Colorado, Texas and Indiana. He served as Indianapolis public safety director and police chief from 2012 to 2017.
Riggs said he's a police officer at heart and believes in being tough on crime, but he also believes in redemption.
“We still imprison people in greater numbers than any other nation in the world and then when they come out, we act like their life is over,” Riggs said. “We don't give them opportunities of employment. We don't give them opportunities to vote. I don't think you should just necessarily just give that to them, but I think it's something they can earn.”
Riggs was Lane’s boss when Lane was working for the city. He knows Lane as a trusted employee who built bridges within the community and served as a role model for so many other ex-offenders trying to rebuild their lives.
“Mr. Lane is a type of individual that I would have trusted my children with him when they were young,” Riggs said. “I mean, the guy's a good guy. How long does he have to pay for that crime?”
Most ex-offenders deserve a chance for a clean slate, Riggs said.
“There has to be some type of system that after someone has served their time and they come back in the community that offers them some hope that they can be reestablished as a rightful citizen of this great country,” Riggs said.
“If it's something that can be earned, most Americans will get behind this. And when it's something to be earned, it gives them hope for their future.
"And who wants to live life without hope?”
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at email@example.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.
The following resources can help Hoosiers seeking to have criminal records expunged:
- Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic
- Marion County Clerk's Office Second Chance Law website
- Indiana Legal Help Expungement Forms