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Louisville Organizations Mount Effort To Clear Criminal Records En Masse

Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

More than a thousand people showed up to an expungement clinic hosted by the Louisville Urban League in February. About 300 of them made it inside. Those whose records were determined to be expungeable under Kentucky law had more than 1,900 cases total.

The event followed a large gift from philanthropist and Speed Museum president Stephen Reily. In late 2017, he announced he would donate $300,000 over three years to the Urban League to grow its expungement program. The organization named it the Reily Reentry Project.

This year lawyers volunteering with the Urban League and partner organizations have worked to help individuals with misdemeanor and Class D felony charges clear their records. On Friday, the organization’s CEO Sadiqa Reynolds will represent some disputed cases in court.

Reynolds said she plans to draw on her background as a public defender. She plans to "push the envelope." For example, if someone has possession of marijuana on their record from four years ago, she thinks the judge should be able to clear that a year early.

"Let's make the argument, let's make the case," Reynolds said. "I think prosecutors should attempt to agree so that people can move on with their lives."

These types of charges are often an obstacle to securing work.

So far this year, the Urban League has helped clear "thousands" of cases, Reynolds said.

Next, she wants to see policy change. One idea: automatic expungement.

"We know that the law says after five years if you haven’t picked up another charge, your record could be expunged. Why don’t we do that?" she said. "How come we can’t just automatically expunge someone’s charge if it’s dismissed?"

The League is putting the Reily money toward the $40 certificates that must accompany every expungement petition. It is also hiring a part-time paralegal to review the cases. Its chief data officer Chabela Sanchez said it hasn’t used up all its funds for the year yet.

That’s in part because many applicants qualify for fee waivers. Clearing a misdemeanor in Kentucky comes with a $100 filing fee per case. The fee for felonies is $500.

To attorney Todd Lewis, the size of those fees is a problem, as is access to legal representation.

"Not a lot of us can part with $500 just on a whim anyway. Presumably if one is seeking an expungement, one's in an even more difficult situation," he said. "So if you're going to do it, the last thing you want to do is not get the relief you want because you messed something up in the petition and then [you can] kiss your $500 goodbye."

Lewis is one of the leaders of the Fresh Start Expungement Program, which is run by the nonprofit Friends of the Jefferson County Public Law Library and supported by funds from the Louisville Metro Council. His group has prepared more than 60 petitions this summer.

He said it’s possible to request a fee waiver without a lawyer, but the forms are complicated and difficult to complete. He’s concerned that filling out a form incorrectly could doubly hurt a person: by causing them to lose that shot at expungement and wasting hundreds of dollars.

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.

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