Second Chances and the Injustice of Expunctions
For those experiencing homelessness, there are many factors that get in the way of them finding a job. One of those factors is having a criminal record. Elisabeth Jordan, Founder of The Human Impact, shares more below about why this is and what is being done about it.
A few years into my work on the streets, I had two volunteers start joining us. They each had a felony that they were able to get expunged by hiring an attorney. The cost they quoted me is around $10,000. Because they came from families with means, they were able to pay to have an attorney do the work of expunction.
On the other hand, we were daily working alongside homeless men and women who had felonies that were 10, 20, or 30 years old, often a drug possession felony, and they were still held back from getting a good job or a good apartment because of the felony. $10,000 was an unthinkable sum, as many were raised in poverty and neither they nor their families had that kind of cash available.
The injustice started to scream at me.
The injustice is this: people with felonies who have the money can pay an attorney to expunge their felony. That means their life can return to normal. They are not turned away at apartments because of their record. They get job interviews and jobs.
People with felonies without means, however, cannot pay an attorney to expunge their felony. Their life cannot return to normal. They are turned away from apartments because of their record. They do not get job interviews or jobs that would help to lift them out of their situation. When they get jobs, they are often the lowest paying positions.
We Believe in Second Chances
Those of us with means who could pay to have our own—or our child’s—felony expunged know that this is unjust. Why else would we cough up $10,000 to have a felony removed from our, or our child’s, record?
It is because we do not believe that our child should have to pay for his or her entire life for a crime committed at 18, 20, 24, 33. It is because we know if the felony is not removed they will never be able to live to their fullest potential. It is because we know restoration cannot happen as we believe it should for them unless that felony is removed. It is because we believe in second chances.
The Injustice Persists
The problem with the fact that those with means can have expunctions done is that people with monetary means are often the people in positions of power. They are our business owners, our attorneys, our judges. They are our mayors, our city council members, our real estate developers, our doctors. The people who could affect the system; the people who could right this injustice are those who can go around the system. They are the people who are able to pay for expunction. They therefore are not motivated to petition their city council members, to argue in a court of law, to use their influence to affect change.
So the injustice persists.
Either no one should be able to have felonies expunged or everyone should have the same chance for expunction. If no one could have their felonies expunged, then the only way for people who have means to remove a felony from their record would be to change the law.
Over time what I saw repeatedly is that our homeless friends with felonies wanted to work, they wanted to leave the streets, but when they would try to find a decent apartment or job, their record always held them back. We got to help one of our friends who had a felony get an apartment by working around the system, leveraging a contact we had at an apartment to overlook the felony. But we had to work around the system to do that.
Since those early days, I have dreamed of getting to either change the law or work with attorneys who could right this injustice. By the grace of God, last year we became reconnected with friends Cynthia and Grant Schmidt, both attorneys. They began working to help us navigate a non-felony case for another friend.
Grant works at the law firm Winston & Strawn, and as we had conversations on the great injustices we see, felony was top of talk. Grant and Winston and Strawn offered to schedule a felony expunction clinic for our friends on the streets. This month on February 26, up to twenty people we know and love will have the chance to start the felony expunction process.
We work with our friends on the streets and Winston to do a pre-screening to assess whether or not the felony can be expunged (for instance, murder and sexual assault cannot be expunged). Then, on February 26, our friends who are participating will go for lunch at Winston’s law offices and start the process with an attorney. It can take 6-9 months for each one, and there is no guarantee it will ultimately come off of the record, but we get to try.