‘You’re not your worst mistake.’ Expungement clinic in Delaware helps people clear criminal records

Public defender Lisa Minutola and community engagement specialist Corie Priest guided people through the expungement process. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Public defender Lisa Minutola and community engagement specialist Corie Priest guided people through the expungement process. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Corie Priest used to sell marijuana and once got busted with several pounds. He pleaded guilty to one felony count of trafficking and spent two years behind bars.

Anyone wanting to look up Priest’s record would not find one in court files, however.

That’s because Priest, 41, had his criminal history expunged, courtesy of a 2019 law that expanded the number of crimes that are eligible to be wiped away. Even fingerprints and mugshots are removed from potential viewing by the public, press, or prospective employers.

Priest, who now works in the community engagement unit of the Delaware Attorney General’s Office, says expungement increases employment opportunities and removes the stigma of past offenses.

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That’s the optimistic message he spread Thursday to people who attended a job fair and expungement clinic at the New Castle County library in New Castle.

“You’re not your mistake. I’m not my worst mistake,’’ Priest said as more than 50 people waited in line before the event started. “I want others to know that they can overcome their most darkest obstacle.”

Visitors had the chance to connect with employers, meet with attorneys to review their eligibility for expungements or pardons, receive financial assistance with the record clearance process, and create a resume.

The event was hosted in part by Amazon, which recently opened a distribution warehouse at the site of the former General Motors assembly plant in nearby Newport.

“This is not just an informational event,” Priest said. “Most people who have registered will come here and get details on if they are eligible or not, because their records have been pulled” in advance for a conference with a public defender.

“He’s going to guide you in one way or another,” Priest said. “You can go here because you’re eligible for a pardon. We can go here because you’re eligible for an expungement. Most people would probably have to get a pardon first because you got multiple convictions — high-level felonies and things of that nature. But it’s just good to know, right?”

Attorney General Kathy Jennings says expanded expungement opportunities “help reduce recidivism and enrich our neighborhoods by helping people who have paid their debts to society get a second chance to build a healthy, lawful life.”

More avenues to expungement since 2019

Prior to the 2019 change in the statute, expungements were only available to people who were charged but not convicted of a crime, or were convicted of a limited number of misdemeanors.

The bill opened the process up to more people with criminal offenses.

For example, someone is eligible for a mandatory expungement if they were convicted of one or more misdemeanors in the same case, five years have passed, and they have “no prior or subsequent convictions.”

Exceptions to mandatory expungement include domestic violence cases, official misconduct, perjury, and hate crimes.

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Many people not eligible for mandatory expungement could apply for a discretionary one that would be ruled on by a Superior Court or Family Court judge, with the Attorney General’s Office permitted to provide input.

Some convictions require a gubernatorial pardon first, but the most serious offenses — manslaughter, murder, first- and second-degree rape, and first-degree sexual abuse of a child by a person in a position of trust, authority, or supervision — are not eligible for expungement.

The state also provides a service, known as APEX, that can guide people through both the expungement and pardon process.

Xaviaier Mills is anxious to get an expungement and “restart my life in society. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

‘I can get a second chance and restart my life in society’

Xaviaier Mills was anxious and emotional as she waited for her chance to learn what she needed to do to get a clean slate. Mills has a felony forgery conviction that will require her to get a pardon before expungement, but she was anxious to finally start the process.

“That way I can get a second chance and restart my life in society,’’ said Mills, who explained that she once had a painkiller habit and had forged prescriptions.

“I can have a better future for myself, as well as my two sons,” she said. “And show other people in my position that you can start over regardless of how late it may seem or the obstacles that may be ahead of you. Being that we have such a serious resource, I want to take advantage of it.”

Her ability to work as a home health care aide has been hampered by her past conviction.

“I want to get my record cleaned so that way I can get back into the work that I love and also bear arms,’’ Mills said. “Your record affects you in so many different ways, even when you don’t realize it, I want to eliminate that hurdle.”

Public defender Lisa Minutola was one of a handful of lawyers from the Office of Defense Services meeting with people who wanted their records expunged.

“We are going to talk to them about what is on their record and guide them as to whether or not they can get an expungement or pardon and explain to them what that process is,’’ Minutola said.

She said that even though getting an expungement is easier than it was before 2019, applicants still must hop through a host of hoops.

“Depending on what is on your record, the process can be somewhat difficult,’’ she said.

“For example, if you have multiple convictions or certain types of convictions, you have to go through a pardon before you could even apply for an expungement. If you have a more minor record or if things on your record were terminated in your favor, like you were acquitted or the charges were dismissed, it’s much easier. Those will be a mandatory expungement.”

The bottom line, Minutola said, is that people need to know if there’s a road map to a clean record and how to get on that path.

“Some people don’t even understand what is on their record,’’ she said. “They don’t understand how they can potentially remove that from the record. And so we’re going to guide them today on how to do that.”

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