In the daily administration of a prosecutor’s office, large or small, our duties bring us face to face with individuals enveloped by crisis, chaos, and/or one or more negative emotions. Those individuals, a person close to them or perhaps their businesses, may be victims or facing charges.
They may be under investigation or appearing, perhaps reluctantly, as witnesses with information about a criminal offense.
The mission of prosecutors and staff is to deliver justice, a sense of security, and closure to what can be traumatic events. Unfortunately, involvement in the criminal justice system itself can have a negative impact, because the system is foreign to most people and interrupts their daily lives.
Thankfully, tools exist to help prosecutors and other criminal justice professionals engage with citizens in a more positive fashion. Through outreach and direct community engagement, prosecutors can offer “a second chance” by using a service that we are most uniquely able to provide: the sealing and expungement of criminal records.
We do this in Miami, and we were therefore gratified that The Crime Report recently chose to highlight the landmark study by J.J. Prescott and Sonja B. Starr of the University of Michigan documenting the utility of expungement for appropriate criminal charges.
There is no question that arrests and convictions for any crime are stigmatizing and could hamper a person’s access to employment, housing, and may other opportunities. A person whose case is dismissed or has paid his or her debt to society can avoid these repercussions in many cases by having their records “sealed” or “expunged.”
When a person’s record is sealed or expunged, he or she may deny the record’s existence except under very limited circumstances. When a record is expunged, it is completely removed from the records system. It is either physically destroyed or, depending on the circumstances, sealed and not available to anyone without a court order.
(Sometimes, as in Florida, there are exceptions allowing a law enforcement agency to access the records for appropriate purposes.)
Critics typically argue that sealing or expungement programs undermine public safety. We have long disagreed with this proposition and were not at all surprised by Prescott and Starr’s results. As TCR noted, the Prescott-Starr study shows that people who obtain expungement commit new crimes at a rate lower than the general population and earn 25 percent more income than those who do not.
Florida law permits people who are charged with certain criminal offenses to apply to have their records “sealed” or expunged under certain circumstances. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) administers the program statewide and determines whether applicants meet criteria.
Unfortunately, only a small fraction of eligible people take advantage of their opportunities for a “second chance.” Indeed, Prescott and Starr report that only 6.5 percent of the people eligible to apply for expungement in Michigan actually did so.
According to the TCR summary of their paper, Prescott and Starr “suggested that a majority of those otherwise eligible to be considered were put off by obstacles ranging from the complicated procedural hurdles involved and lack of access to legal help, to distrust and pessimism about the justice system.”
This is entirely consistent with our experience.
We recognized the potential benefits and barriers to expungement years ago and developed a community-based program to assist people who wanted to seal and expunge their records as part of our Smart Justice programming.
Over a decade ago, we began collaborating with Public Defender Carlos Martinez, Clerk of the Court Harvey Ruvin, and our voluntary bar associations to host “S&E” events throughout the community. In a jurisdiction encompassing some 2,400 square miles with more than 2.7 million residents, we hold these events in many different neighborhood locations to ensure we reach the people most in need of assistance.
We typically partner with local community providers and leaders, often members of the clergy. The invaluable partners, who often allow us to use their facilities, help relieve the suspicions that some individuals may have about interacting with members of the criminal justice system.
We try to host our S&E events from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. on a weekday once every month so we can better accommodate working people. We advertise them by canvassing local neighborhoods and posting flyers in English, Spanish, and Creole to reach all parts of our ethnically diverse community, as well as making announcements on our website.
During these events, we bring all of the tools necessary to provide a “One Stop Shop” to meet the needs of all eligible participants. Our staff helps each applicant complete their paperwork free of charge. Of course, we know that some people cannot attend our events. Accordingly, we provide detailed instructions for applying online, and also offer telephonic assistance.
We’ve hosted 82 events since 2011 (an average of almost 10 per year). During that time, 11,653 requested our assistance. Of that number, we determined that 6,154 people were eligible to have the records sealed or expunged, and we helped them do so.
Not only does our S&E program help people start anew, but it helps us build a stronger rapport with the people we serve. The public understands that we do more than seek convictions, we seek justice.
Second chances matter. We hope that Prescott and Starr’s findings will give policymakers the scientific basis and incentive they may need to develop programs to facilitate the rehabilitation of those who paid their debts to society and that our program can serve as a model.
Additional Reading: Project Clean Slate Helps Detroit Residents Wipe Criminal Records
Katherine Fernandez Rundle is State Attorney for Miami-Dade County. Stephen K. Talpins is Assistant State Attorney and Chief of Staff. They welcome comments from readers.