Expunging the Scarlet Letter

DC Law Students in Court provides expungement services to create real second chances.

“A scarlet letter,” is how Gwen Washington describes the stain of having a criminal record. Washington is DC Law Students in Court’s (LSIC) Expungement Director. Her work at LSIC centers heavily on helping vulnerable DC residents remove the stigma of a criminal record. When transitioning from prison or jail back into the community, it is not uncommon for people to experience insurmountable obstacles to successful re-entry. Washington and LSIC has found that for most of their clients, a criminal record stands as a barrier for re-entering citizens to obtain employment, secure housing, and more.

Individuals with criminal records can face challenges finding and maintaining employment — a critical aspect of reducing recidivism.[1] A report published by the Equitas Project provides, “of the 262,000 offenders that were released from federal prison between 2002 and 2006, 50 percent of those who could not secure employment during the time of their supervised release (generally two-to-five years) committed a new crime or violated the terms of their release and were sent back to prison.”[2] Statistics compiled by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington, D.C., indicate that ex-offender employment is a critical factor in whether recently released federal inmates are successful.[3] However, an astonishing 93 percent of those who were able to secure employment during the entirety of their supervised release were able to successfully re-integrate back into society and not return to prison.[4]

In an effort to reduce the obstacles faced by returning DC residents who are unable to gain employment, housing, or other critical needs due to their criminal record, LSIC started its Expungement Clinic in 2015. While we use the common term “Expungement”, DC law actually does not allow for formal expungement, or complete deletion of a criminal record; instead, DC law allows for criminal records to be sealed, which means the record still formally exists but access to it is largely limited to the courts and law enforcement.[5] Our Expungement Clinic guides low-income persons through the complicated legal process to clear their DC criminal records. Our clinic is also one of the only services in Washington, D.C. where indigent individuals can seek free attorney representation to seal their criminal record and put the past behind them. In 2018, our Expungement Clinic served nearly 1500 low-income DC residents with criminal records. Of that number, 362 clients had cases that were eligible for expungement.

Unfortunately, in DC, sealing a criminal record is not easy. Of the clients we helped in 2018, 39 percent were ineligible for our services. This is due in part to the strict local statutes, which proscribe the guidelines for obtaining an expungement. For example, there are certain crimes that the D.C. Council deems as ineligible for expungement completely. For those crimes that are eligible for expungement, the wait limit for expungement can vary between 2 and 10 years, depending on the status of the case. Additionally, expunging a criminal record does not eliminate the record for immigration purposes, so those without formal immigration status are still faced with the stigma of their past. What that means is, there is far more work to be done to ensure that those deserving of a second chance truly get one.

April marks Second Chance Month, where programs like ours throughout the country will spread awareness of the importance of successful re-entry. Second Chance Month, first implemented by President George W. Bush, draws attention to the challenges former inmates face and the steps we can take to ensure they have the opportunity to become contributing members of society. LSIC is committed to that fight. Through LSIC’s expungement work, our goal is to remove the barriers a criminal record imposes on a returning citizen’s ability to reclaim and rebuild their lives. Successful re-entry is possible, but it will take all of us to ensure true second chances become a reality.

[1] http://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/barriers-to-work-individuals-with-criminal-records.aspx

[2] http://civilrightsdocs.info/pdf/criminal-justice/Re-Entry-Fact-Sheet.pdf

[3] https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdal/programs/ex-offender-re-entry-initiative

[4] https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdal/programs/ex-offender-re-entry-initiative

[5] https://wamu.org/story/17/09/14/criminal-record-d-c-may-soon-find-easier-bounce-back/