Delaware offers expungement clinic for teens, adults

 Two men talk at the expungement clinic in Dover Monday afternoon. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

Two men talk at the expungement clinic in Dover Monday afternoon. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

The state hosted an expungement clinic in Dover Monday to help individuals get a clean slate.

When Alan was 16, he started hanging out with the wrong crowd, and eventually had a lapse of judgement.

He was caught with paraphernalia and marijuana while parked in a deserted lot, and was convicted on possession charges.

Now 19, Alan, whose last name is omitted for his privacy, wants a fresh start. Standing with his criminal history information in hand he said hopes his record will soon be expunged.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

On Monday, Alan was one of dozens of individuals attending a clinic to learn how they can receive a pardon and an expungement.

“I’m here for a chance to feel free—I’d like to start off clean,” he said. “Even though I do have a job, I want to make sure I can get a [better] job to take care of me and my family.”

State agencies and local nonprofits hosted the expungement clinic in Dover for adults and teens.  The event was part of an effort to educate individuals on how to expunge their criminal record so they can have better access to employment, education and housing. Once the record is expunged, it is sealed from public view.

About 85 adults and juveniles attended the clinic—the first of its kind in Kent County.

“It’s so important, because even an arrest shows up in Delaware on a juvenile’s record. An arrest would have to be disclosed for some employment applications or for some college applications,” said Lisa Minutola, chief of legal services for the Office of Defense Services.

“By allowing them to get the expungements the record is clean, and when they apply for a job or for college they can check off the box that says they have not been arrested or adjudicated, and it gives them more opportunities to get a job, to get housing, to do the things that will make them successful members of society.”

Rita Mishoe Paige of the Delaware State Housing Authority approached State Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, to suggest the event because she was concerned about residents in public housing and housing voucher recipients who had difficulty finding a job because of their criminal histories.

In order to remain compliant in the program individuals must have a job, or be enrolled in school or job training. If they fail compliance, they are required to report to a hearing. Paige said about 20 or 25 clients go through the hearing process each year.

“I was coming across too many people who were unemployed, and having a criminal history was really a major barrier to employment. I don’t want to strike people out. I don’t want to see people losing housing just because they’re unemployed, and in meantime they have to pay their rent,” she said.

“Depression sets in, other emotional issues set in, and residents start missing appointments with case managers, we don’t know what’s happening with them, they’re afraid to talk to case managers because they don’t want them to know they’re unemployed. It causes problems in the households. I’ve seen behavioral issues where they take out their frustrations with the children. So, I said, ‘We have to do something to help this situation.’”

The agency and Lynn then teamed up with the Office of Defense Services, the Delaware Department of Labor’s APEX program, local attorneys from the community, the Delaware Center for Justice, the Murphey School and Independent Living Services.

Last year several attempts were made to help the expungement process more accessible.

The General Assembly made it easier for eligible juveniles to get expungements, and requires the immediate expungement of a juvenile record when charges are dropped or dismissed. Since the new juvenile expungement provisions took effect, 288 mandatory expungements were granted immediately after court proceedings.

The Office of Defense Services also held three clinics and helped gain 59 expungements for eligible juveniles.

For Monday’s event, the office sent out letters notifying juveniles and adults who may qualify for an expungement about the clinic. Other individuals attended the event after seeing it advertised on social media.

Delawareans received free legal aid and advice about getting an expungement, or a gubernatorial pardon, from attorneys, and from representatives from the Department of Labor’s APEX program, which guides Delawareans through the pardon and expungement process.

Financial aid was made available for those in need thanks to fundraising efforts by local nonprofits.

Attorney Tetra Shockley said Delawareans with adult convictions must receive a pardon prior to requesting an expungement.

During the pardon process an individual must prove to the Board of Pardons they haven’t committed a crime in the last four years, they have respect for authority and the law and have been hindered by their conviction. If the hearing is successful, the Governor makes the final decision to pardon.

Attorneys from Monday’s clinic will provide services to clients throughout the pardon and expungement process pro bono.

Receiving an expungement for a juvenile record is less challenging, and some crimes require mandatory expungement.

Shockley said hiring an attorney for these matters can range from $1,500 to $3,000, so for many an expungement wouldn’t be possible without a free clinic. Others don’t even know help is out there, she said.

Shockley said the clients she saw on Monday wanted the opportunity to erase the mistakes they made several years ago, and move on with their life.

“I’ve heard many stories today about people who either got turned down for jobs because of their criminal history—there was one gentlemen who had gotten the job before his criminal record had come back, and once it came back he lost the job because if his criminal history,” she said. “People want a better life, they want better financial opportunities to take care of their kids or families, and unfortunately their past keeps coming back to bite them.”

Lynn said one man who attended the event had a record for possessing a quarter of an ounce of marijuana, which had affected his life for the past 13 years. Today, possessing an ounce or less of cannabis is decriminalized.

“I feel like once you’re in the system you’re on this hamster wheel. You can imagine applying for a job or public housing when you have a drug charge on your criminal record. And what’s even more vexing about it is now possession of an ounce of marijuana is decriminalized. So, you imagine the frustration some people will feel who have been living for 13 years under the auspices something they’ve done was felonious and now it’s not even illegal anymore, and it’s been a barrier to getting a job or supporting a family for 10 years,” Lynn said.

“So, to me it’s rectifying some of the injustices we see, or people who make a mistake and genuinely need a second chance and want to get out of the hamster wheel system.”

Lynn and Paige said with the number of individuals attending Monday’s event, it’s clear the event will be hosted again in the near future.

“I think if we can get their criminal history removed as a barrier and get more people employed the greater their self-esteem, the more people will be able to take care of their family, we’ll see a decrease in crimes, I think we’ll have stronger homes, stronger families, which produces stronger communities,” Paige said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal