Legal advisors speak at a recent clinic

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Nearly one in three Philadelphia residents has a criminal record.

Many of these people were never found guilty of a major wrongdoing, but often that doesn’t make a difference. Just having “a record” is enough to make you ineligible for employment, education, housing and public assistance.

Enter the idea of criminal record expungement — the removal of past convictions from state or federal records. You’re probably out of luck if you have serious felonies on your record, especially if they include violent crimes or sexual offenses, but you can expunge things like:

  • Minor misdemeanors
  • Summary convictions
  • Nonviolent offenses
  • Not guilty charges
  • Dismissed/withdrawn charges

The process isn’t easy, but a group of Philly law organizations, including the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Community Legal Services and the Fox Rothschild Center For Law & Society, have teamed up to help by hosting free clinics throughout the city.

A cry of relief

Philadelphians are gratefully taking advantage. After her first time working one of the sessions, paralegal Sherlyn Martinez even got offered free dinner.

Martinez, a paralegal at CLS, met a man who needed past charges cleared from his record. At first, he was touchy, she said. He wasn’t enjoying Martinez asking him personal questions, and he seemed pessimistic that the process would actually work out in his favor. But it did. Months later, Martinez gave him a call to let him know his past criminal charges would be expunged.

“When I told him over the phone, he cried,” Martinez said. “He was like, ‘I want to take you out to eat.’” Martinez politely declined his offer. “Just a thank you was enough.”

Martinez worked for the second time at last week’s clinic, held at the Community College of Philadelphia. Along with other legal workers, she accessed people’s criminal records using a computer database and worked with them to determine the next steps to getting them cleared.

“If people have paid for what they’ve done, why are they still being held back?” said José Loya, the director of communications, digital strategy and community relations for the Defender Association. “This is one way to help people move forward.”

Spreading knowledge

There are several barriers to getting your record expunged, Loya said. The most pervasive is a lack of information about the process.

For example: the Defender Association encounters tons of Philadelphia residents who think their juvenile convictions are automatically expunged when they turn 18 years old, per Loya, but that’s not the case. Juvenile delinquency can make you ineligible to pursue college or apply for a professional license.

At both criminal record expungement clinics where she’s volunteered, Martinez said the people she’s helped have been immeasurably grateful.

“They feel like [these charges are] a weight on their life,” she said. “The fact that they’re getting expunged, it’s like a brick off their shoulders…. It gives them a sense of freedom.”

Taking it to the neighborhoods

Generally, Loya said, there are rules for what legal professionals can and can’t expunge. After each event, the detailed information is sent back to the association or CLS, where staff members process the work and move forward if possible. From there, it can take eight to 10 months until convictions are removed from your record.

“We want to be straight up with people,” Loya said. “It isn’t about false hope. If it can be expunged, we will expunge it. If it can’t, we want to tell them.”

Future expungement clinic sites include West Philly’s Francis Myers Recreation Center and the HIV/AIDS health services clinic Philadelphia FIGHT in Center City. Hosting these out in Philadelphia neighborhoods is an essential, said Loya. Oftentimes, people don’t have the resources to make it to the Defender Association’s Center City office or begin the process on their own.

“We’re dealing with people who miss court dates because they don’t have the bus fare to make it to court,” Loya said. “We have to go to them.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...