Vermont law allows many people with criminal convictions to wipe their records clean, but they often lack the legal knowhow to do so.
The Lamoille Restorative Center will host a free clinic where 20 lawyers will help people navigate through the expungement process. It is partnering with Vermont Legal Aid and the Lamoille County State’s Attorney’s Office for the event.
The clinic is Jan. 24 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Restorative Center, 221 Main St., Hyde Park.
Expungement is a legal process that removes a crime from an offender’s past, leaving no trace at the courts or the police station. It’s earned particular renown in Vermont in recent years as the state relaxed its cannabis laws, allowing people with misdemeanor convictions involving then-illegal marijuana to get rid of those convictions.
The 20 lawyers from the Vermont Attorney General’s Office will help people get set up with the right paperwork and a strategy.
Lamoille County State’s Attorney Todd Shove will then review the paperwork and sign off on whatever qualifies for expungement.
“They’ll at least have a road map to fixing it in some way,” said Heather Hobart, executive director of the restorative center. “And, honestly, they’re getting free legal advice that day.”
According to the restorative center, between 25 and 30 percent of Americans have a criminal record, a percentage that has increased in the past 30 years.
A criminal record can make it difficult to find work, even when a person is highly qualified for a job.
The 2017 “ban the box” law passed by the Vermont Legislature prohibits an employer from asking for criminal record information on a job application. But it does not prohibit an employer from bringing up past criminal behavior in a subsequent job interview.
Hobart said a 2009 Justice Department study found that as many as 50 percent of people who have a criminal conviction on their record don’t get called back for a second job interview, no matter how well the first one went.
“A lot of people don’t even apply for jobs at all,” Hobart said. “A lot of people don’t want to bring it up.”
People with criminal records might be relegated to lower-paying jobs than they’re qualified for, and would rather suffer financial woes than deal with constant rejection.
Some crimes make it tough for people to qualify for federal housing subsidies and vouchers.
A criminal record can also affect families. For instance, Hobart said a lot of parents aren’t going on field trips because they don’t want to fill out disclosure forms for criminal background checks, because they’re too embarrassed to divulge a conviction.
And there’s just the stigma attached to having a criminal conviction in their past.
“It gets them stuck in a way that they feel they can’t get out of,” she said.
Hobart said her staff has been sending information about the expungement clinic to businesses, and the human resources departments at those companies have shown interest in helping to free employees from a prior conviction.
Almost all misdemeanors are eligible for expungement, and some felonies are eligible, too. The exceptions are predicate offenses, such as driving under the influence — where subsequent offenses of the same manner bring increased severity. A person’s first or second drunken-driving conviction is a misdemeanor, but the third, fourth, and so on are all felonies.
But even though a DUI 1 charge can’t be expunged, there are ways to have that conviction sealed, so the only people who can see it are government officials.
And even if a person has a conviction that is not eligible for expungement, the restorative center staff want that person to at least come in and see what sort of punishment reductions the law may provide.
Said Hobart, “I want all walks of life coming in here.”
Clearing the record
The state may expunge most misdemeanors, as well as four types of felony offenses: burglary (not in a home), grand larceny, prescription fraud and criminal mischief.
No other felonies can be expunged. Also, offenses including prostitution or lewd behavior are not eligible.
Misdemeanors not eligible for expungement include violent or sex crimes and traffic-related offenses. These are predicate offenses that can be used to bring stiffer sentences in subsequent charges. They include: domestic assault, stalking, disturbing the peace by phone, driving under the influence, excessive speed, driving after criminal license suspension for DUI, and negligent driving.