NEW ORLEANS – A line with a few dozen people stretched outside the door of the building where volunteers were helping escort folks through the expungement process. It was just a half-hour into the event, and Sherie Thomas had to let those outside know the services would be available again next month.
Some 30 people were able to get assistance from attorneys and other volunteers Wednesday night. They comprise an iota of the estimated 550,000 people in Louisiana who qualify for expungement, a process in which their criminal backgrounds are erased or sealed.
Misdemeanor charges can be expunged after five years. Certain nonviolent felonies take 10 years before they can be cleared.
But the clashing patchwork of Louisiana’s process ensnares more than just those with past arrests and convictions, according to Thomas. She’s the outreach and community engagement director for the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, one of the groups that conducts and sponsors the expungement events. Individuals who’ve been arrested – but not charged with a crime – also report issues with passing background checks.
“Louisiana has some of the most cumbersome laws in the country for expungement,” Thomas said, adding that the associated $550 court fee is the nation’s highest.
Criminal background baggage typically hinders people when they apply for jobs and housing, which means they struggle to gain a foothold financially once they have paid their debt to society. A woman who took part in the expungement clinic, and asked that her name not be revealed, said she has missed out on 10 jobs over the past seven years because of her conviction for domestic violence aggravated assault. Her charge was eventually reduced to a misdemeanor.
“Some (employers) tell me that when you apply for a job, if you have these (convictions), then don’t apply because you’re not gonna get the job,” she said.
The woman said she has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees since her arrest in 2010, and she has only been able to find work in positions that limit her earning capacity. Her current job involves a lot of stress, and she would like to work in the field related to her academic training.
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There have been efforts in the Louisiana Legislature the past two years to streamline the state’s expungement laws for nonviolent offenders. Both have run up against conservative opposition and mixed reactions from law enforcement.
Then-Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, who is now a member of the Senate, sponsored a bill in 2022 that would have created automated expungement for people with arrests and convictions for certain state charges dating back to 1999. The original version of the bill would have also eliminated the $550 fee for those who qualified.
State Police indicated the process would require more manpower and new technology, although the budget included an additional $3 million to cover those expenses. Plus, Thomas said the Code for America organization offered to create the needed software for free, but State Police turned them down.
While some district attorneys have argued for a simplified expungement process, court clerks have expressed concerns similar to those of State Police. The Louisiana Sheriffs Association, which could have provided momentum for the cause, stayed neutral on Duplessis’ bill.
Sen. Bodie White, R-Central, objected to doing away with the $550 court fee and amended the bill to have the money taken from the expunged individual’s tax refunds. The proposal then became caught up in a political tug-of-war during the late days of the session and died on the Senate floor.
Thomas said the Justice and Accountability Center intends to make another go at automated expungement this year. Years can be added on to a process that shuffles someone’s records from court clerks to sheriffs to State Police and then back to court clerks, she added.
Some people are under the impression they simply have to wait for a certain amount of time to elapse in order to have their background cleared, Thomas said. Just to begin the process, they need a background check, their charging documents or bill of information, and a copy of their court record.
One man sought help from volunteers after 50 years with a criminal record and learned his conviction wasn’t clear, according to Thomas.
“In Louisiana, unfortunately, it’s very sad that no matter how long you wait, your record will never be cleared without doing an expungement,” she said.
To open the expungement process to more people, the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana has created a smartphone application to help them start. Clinics like the one held every second Wednesday of the month in New Orleans also take place around the state (see a calendar of events).
“Once an individual has an opportunity for an expungement, they are able to get better jobs, they’re able to get the dream jobs that they’ve always wanted,” Thomas said. “They’re able to provide for more for their families. And with them getting better jobs, they spend more and so it even helps our economy here in the state as well.”
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