DA’s office making it tougher to clear charges from clients’ records, Philly lawyers group says

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 Ex-offenders attend an expungement clinic at Vare Recreation Center in November. Those who meet certain requirements are eligible to have prior arrests and convictions expunged from their legal record. These services are provided by volunteer attorneys and are free of charge. (Emily Cohen for NewsWorks)

Ex-offenders attend an expungement clinic at Vare Recreation Center in November. Those who meet certain requirements are eligible to have prior arrests and convictions expunged from their legal record. These services are provided by volunteer attorneys and are free of charge. (Emily Cohen for NewsWorks)

Attorneys with Community Legal Services, one of the city’s biggest filers of expungement petitions in Philadelphia, say the district attorney’s office is objecting to far more of their cases since the start of the New Year. And that’s hurting their clients.

CLS files hundreds of expungement petitions each year for low-income residents. Many are requests for “redactions” — a partial expungement where some charges are cleared from an  individual’s criminal record. Often, the charges never resulted in a conviction. Other more serious offenses typically remain, usually permanently.

Jamie Gullen, a staff attorney with CLS’ employment unit, said prosecutors with the Philadelphia DA’s office  used to rarely object to partial expungements — on any grounds. A judge would typically grant a petition the first time it came up in court — on the spot.

These days, though, Gullen said redactions and other petitions routinely draw prosecutors’ objections — the biggest obstacle for someone seeking an expungement.

In March 2016, the district attorney’s office objected to 13 percent of petitions from CLS clients, according to data crunched by CLS.

A year later, that percentage more than tripled — to 41 percent.

The “vast majority” of these petitions are ultimately granted at a later court date, but Gullen argues that bump is still significant.

“Every time there’s an objection to an expungement petition, clients have to take off work, arrange child care, come to court,” Gullen said. “Often their cases get continued again.”

The average wait for an initial hearing is four to five months. If granted, it can take up to six months for the Pennsylvania State Police to physically clear the charges from its database so they’re not visible to the public.

“People who were really in desperate need of a job the day they came into our office are sometimes waiting over a year before they can actually — finally — walk into that job interview and feel confident these nonconviction charges aren’t going to show up on their record,” said Gullen.

Prosecutors with the district attorney’s office don’t dispute that there was an uptick in objections in March, though its figures reveal a slightly smaller percentage gap year to year.

But Deputy District Attorney Michael Barry, who supervises all expungement cases, said that’s not surprising, mostly because there were “exponentially” more petitions in March than in other months because petitions from a citywide expungement clinic hit the docket.

CLS, the district attorney’s office, and the Philadelphia Bar Association partnered for event.

During just three days in March, a judge considered 750 expungement petitions, said Barry.

Any other month, one that doesn’t include petitions from an expungement clinic, would typically have 125 cases.

When it comes to petitions for redactions, the district attorney’s office tends to object only when the case contains a negotiated guilty plea.

CLS lawyers “have every right to take that position. I’m not faulting them for taking that position. It is not news to them that we’re going to object to that position, however,” said Barry.

Gullen, the staff attorney, said a number of the redaction petitions from March were cases with guilty pleas.

Barry said the office has objected to those kinds of cases since at least 2001.

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