A day to expunge criminal records is hugely popular in Philly

Meghan Claiborne and John Coyle never imagined that the little volunteer project they decided to shepherd on behalf of the Young Lawyers Division of the Philadelphia Bar Association would mushroom into Saturday's mega-event.

But the numbers tell the story about what would happen when they offered people with criminal records a chance to have their rap sheets sealed, expunged, or redacted:

1,853 people with criminal records signed up for free clinics on Saturday. Registration is closed.

1,200 people will likely get a cleaned-up record.

175 lawyers, paralegals, and law students volunteered to help them.

Six locations will run throughout the city.

Three branches and two levels of government actually cooperating and coordinating efforts.

"I never imagined it would be as big as it was," said Coyle, an assistant city solicitor. "They had to close registration."

And while questions can be raised about whether a record-sealing process can work in the age of Google, research conducted in Michigan shows that setting aside some criminal records reduces recidivism and improves employability and earning power.

Saturday's event comes at an important confluence of events.

In April, the city won a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to reduce the city's prison population by a third. A key component? Making sure people released from prison don't return.

On Monday, new amendments to a state law will go into effect. The changes to Pennsylvania's Act 5 allow people with certain types of misdemeanors to ask the courts to seal their records so that they are available only to law enforcement, and not to the general public.

The changes come with an increase in filing fees, up from under $20 to about $145 per petition.

The work done at the free clinics Saturday will be filed Monday, making the filings the first to go through under the new amendments.

And next week, lawmakers, advocates, and city and state officials will gather in Harrisburg to talk about the next iteration on criminal records: the Clean Slate bill.

That measure would automatically erase arrests without convictions and certain offenses from a person's criminal record after a period of time with no need for an expensive court petition. Police would still have access.

Such a measure would come in handy for a 50-year-old barber and Uber driver from Germantown whose low-level misdemeanors, dating from 1988, when she was 21, have caused her to be kicked out of two medical training programs and are preventing her now from sitting for a pharmacy tech examination.

"It would benefit me a great deal," she said, declining to use her name because it would negate the point of getting her record sealed. "Having a record messed me up."

Saturday's effort got its start in February when Erin Lamb, who leads the Young Lawyers division, was shopping for that little volunteer project for her group. She met with Julie Wertheimer, chief of staff to the city's deputy managing director for criminal justice, who suggested an expungement clinic.

Lamb tapped Claiborne and Coyle, who turned to Community Legal Services and others for technical assistance. Wertheimer helped coordinate the government entities.

Michael Hollander, a CLS employment lawyer, had devised software that would scan a person's criminal records to learn whether the person's records could be expunged, sealed, or redacted and then generate the appropriate petitions.

Claiborne, Coyle, and a handful of other lawyers pre-screened all the applicants to see whether they would qualify to petition the court.

The District Attorney's Office had to be involved because for expungements the office can object.

An assistant district attorney will be at each site Saturday to review the petitions and, if possible, avert objections.

Sheila Woods-Skipper, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court president judge, and other judges had to be involved to process the forms that would allow people to waive the normal court fee. The court also set up a system to move Saturday's petitions through its process.

To State Rep. Jordan A. Harris (D., Phila.), the day's events are gratifying. Harris, who represents the Point Breeze area, was a sponsor of Act 5.

"People talk about being tough on crime," he said. But if people with criminal records can't get jobs, "they recidivate or use some kind of public assistance. That's not being tough on crime. That's being dumb on crime."

What may be dumb is imagining that some kind of record-sealing will work in the age of Google, said William "Bill" Cobb, a Community Legal Services board member and founder of a nonprofit, Redeemed, to help people with criminal pasts.

"It's my position that expungements are antiquated," he said. "Expungements and pardons used to help, but they no longer help because the information is out there. Someone can just type in a name and hit the enter button."

More needed are changes in laws and attitudes, "so it's not normal to discriminate against someone with a criminal record," Cobb said.

Countered Harris: Clearing records is "not going to solve all of our problems with the criminal justice system. Nothing is perfect in this day and age of Google, but even little steps can yield change."

Poring over hundreds of criminal records as part of the pre-screening process, Claiborne, an associate at Duane Morris, found herself noticing the situations of people who had her birth date or were her age.

Three years ago, Claiborne, 30, graduated with honors from Emory University with a law degree and now is advancing in a prestigious Philadelphia law firm.

The people whose records she saw?

"They were mired down," she said. "I was lucky to have every opportunity.

"Seeing someone I could relate to in age really makes me think about how difficult a criminal record could be at this point in our lives - how arrests and convictions on your record can be detrimental to your ability to move forward with your life."

Feeling that kind of connection, she said, is helping motivate her through all-nighter criminal record pre-screening sessions.

"It's nice to have a skill to be able to help," she said.

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769

@JaneVonBergen

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