Pittsfield workshop on expunging, sealing criminal records aims to help people rebuild their lives
A workshop on sealing or expunging criminal records will be held in Pittsfield, Massachusetts February 10th. Anyone who has been charged with a crime in the commonwealth will have a Criminal Offender Record Information or CORI report appear in background checks regularly used by employers and landlords. For those seeking to rebuild their lives after being incarcerated or navigating the criminal legal system, that record can complicate getting a job, securing housing, and more. The event at 264 Second Street is being held by the re-entry program 2nd Street Second Chances – which is backed by the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office – as well as Community Legal Aid and the Committee for Public Counsel Services. WAMC Berkshire Bureau Chief Josh Landes spoke with Community Legal Aid attorney Annie Maurer.
MAURER: The first part of the clinic is just informing people who have criminal backgrounds what their rights are when they apply for jobs and for housing, to help folks get a sense of what to expect during that process, what people are going to have access to, and what the rules are with respect to disclosing their background, and what employers and housing providers are allowed to ask people about their backgrounds. And then the second part is educating people about how to steal or expunge their record if they're eligible for that. And we will assist people who are eligible financially for legal aid to follow that process, and also inform people who are not how to go about doing it themselves.
WAMC: Can you explain what criminal charges can do to impact people's lives that might make sealing them valuable?
We have clients who come to us all the time after having been denied employment or housing because of their criminal record. It can be a huge barrier to successfully reentering after you've served time in prison or jail, or even if you have not served any time, it can really devastate your ability to have income, provide for your family, find stable housing.
What is the process like to seal criminal records?
It's complicated. It depends on a bunch of different factors. For instance, the biggest factor is the length of time it has been since you have had an offence- And I'm just talking about Massachusetts law. But what we do is, we evaluate somebody's CORI to find out if they're eligible for administrative sealing. There are other types of sealing they might be eligible for if they don't have convictions. So, if they just have dismissals or non-convictions on their record, they might be able to ask a judge to seal their record before the three years for a misdemeanor or seven years for a felony. There are some offenses which are never sealable. So, we advise our clients which offenses on the record are in fact, sealable as well.
It strikes me that this kind of ability to seal these records would probably be a great boon to folks trying to get back on their feet following incarceration or following experiences with the criminal legal system. Do you find that this is a valuable tool for people trying to move forward with their lives?
Definitely. While having a criminal record can create a lot of barriers for folks, Massachusetts law also has a lot of protections for people who are able to access sealing. So, the employers and housing providers are not going to necessarily be able to see the sealed offenses, and it lets people just have a fresh start and be able to put their best foot forward.
What do you feel like are common misconceptions about criminal records?
I think that a lot of people, or a lot of employers, have concern about hiring people with criminal records. They don't necessarily feel like they can trust that individual, and I think that the research has shown that people who have had experience in the criminal legal system come to that for a variety of reasons and that doesn't necessarily reflect on their ability to hold down a job, be a productive part of a staff, or be a good tenant. So, there are tons of misconceptions out there, depending on the different types of offenses that employers and housing providers might find on someone's record.
Is there an equity component to this? There's a lot of research about systemic discrimination that happens within the criminal legal system. Do you see this kind of work in sealing criminal records to address equity concerns in the system writ large?
Of course. the criminal legal system disproportionately affects people of color, people with disabilities, and that disproportionate effect gets carried over to all of the civil legal consequences of a criminal record. So, you're going to see the same disparate impact happening to communities of color and people with disabilities because they just carry through.
What do you see as some of the biggest gaps in the reentry process for folks transitioning out of incarceration or experiences in the criminal legal system?
There are different barriers, I think, depending on the stage you are in coming out of the system. So, people who are immediately leaving custody or facing just very basic barriers. They might not have their identification, they might not know how to access health care, they might not have their health insurance set up. And so just getting those very basic things set up can be very onerous. And then as people do reintegrate, there are a lot of other barriers. For instance, the work that I do, which is helping folks access employment and stable housing for the long term.
Is there anything about this event next week that I've not thought to ask you that you think it's important for folks to understand?
Well, I just want to add that Community Legal Aid is offering this clinic at 2nd Street Second Chances, which is a pretty new reentry program in Berkshire County. It's right in Pittsfield. And we are just one of the many partner organizations who works with 2nd Street. There are a lot of organizations that provide mental health services, substance use services, all kinds of services that people who have experienced the criminal legal system can access at 2nd Street. So, all the community partners are trying to get together and sort of be a hub of services there.