By Zandy Dudiak, Communications coordinator
The justice system can end up being a “paper prison” for some individuals who carry the unpacked baggage of minor criminal records that can cause major problems in their lives. When an individual is arrested but the charges are withdrawn or dismissed, that doesn’t mean that their “record” just goes away. Even when convicted of a minor offense (misdemeanor), having the charges linger on one’s record can affect everything from military service and college enrollment to employment and housing.
There are only three ways to clear a criminal record:
- Expungement—erases the record as if it never existed.
- Sealing—erases the record from public view.
- Pardon—erases the record only by permission of the governor.
“Anything that you did not plead guilty to or were not found guilty of is expungable,” says Jim Reid, a Pittsburgh Mercy Intervention specialist. “Sealing can be done for minor infractions (misdemeanors). The end is when you are denied your pardon by the governor.”
Expungements, sealings, and pardons are things that Jim discusses in his Thinking For A Change classes, which are held weekly at the Allegheny County Jail Reentry Center in Uptown. Participants learn to reframe thoughts to promote healthy behavior, develop social skills, and problem solve. The program has been shown to successfully reduce recidivism (the risk of a repeat offense). So when Zeke Rediker and host Tia McClenney, attorneys with Reed Smith, a Downtown Pittsburgh law firm, proposed holding a pro bono expungement clinic in partnership with Pittsburgh Mercy, Divine Intervention Ministries, and Neighborhood Legal Services (NLS), Jim and Mike Luxemburger, Intervention Program administrator, were excited to be able to offer it to persons we serve.
Jim and Mike worked to identify 11 or 12 individuals who might benefit by contacting parole officers, Drug Court and Driving Under the Influence (DUI) Court. Chekesha Bell, Intervention senior manager, was also involved in the planning process. In July, after a few months of planning meetings that included the partnering agencies, an informational session was held at Reedsdale Center for 10 individuals. Afterward, a Reed Smith attorney was paired with each participant to review their records and determine if they are eligible for expungement.
Of the 10 individuals chosen to participate, one was a no-show and two others were unable to come to the presentation. The two who were unable to attend received information so they could proceed with the process. “I thought it went very well and they received it very well,” says Tia. “A lot of them were really excited.”
Reed Smith attorneys referred eligible individuals to Neighborhood Legal Services (NLS). Attorneys at NLS will complete the paperwork for an expungement or explore whether or not the individual is eligible for a pardon by the governor. “This is what I appreciate about Reed Smith—the warm handoff to the NLS attorneys,” Jim says. NLS has an income baseline for clients but can refer to other organizations if an individual exceeds the income limits.
“There’s hope for certain crimes like drugs and fights you may have gotten into,” Tia says. “Everyone has a chance to recover and get a second chance.” In her presentation during the clinic, Tia cited the impact of pardons and expungements using three real-life examples:
- Judge Bruce Morrow gave Edward Martell a second chance through probation for a drug charge but told him that the next time he stepped into the courtroom, he expected him to have made “something big” of himself. Martell was back in Morrow’s courtroom 16 years later where he was sworn in as an attorney.
- Dwayne Betts, now an attorney, was 16 when he was convicted and was sentenced nine years as an adult after he was found guilty of aggravated carjacking in Virginia. Betts, a Yale University Law School graduate, has served on government councils and commissions dealing with criminal justice.
- Brandon J. Flood was sentenced to nine years for selling crack and carrying an unlicensed firearm. Subsequently, he worked as a legislative assistant for the state House of Representatives for nearly a decade and serves as secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.
Although this is the first time Reed Smith held an expungement clinic in Pittsburgh, the firm’s office in Philadelphia had a walk-up event outside prior to the pandemic. While that was initially the plan for Pittsburgh in order to reach a wider community, the COVID-19 pandemic changed that to inviting a small group to participate. Tia says Reed Smith does a lot of pro bono work centering on issues such as domestic violence, prison, cancer, and adoptions. The pro bono expungement clinic is something Reed Smith hopes to carry forward.
“In general, several people finally got help in getting the weight off of moving forward,” Jim adds. “So, I just want to say how grateful I am to be associated with an intelligent, caring, and industrious group of people and recognize there are dedicated people still working in the background to produce a positive outcomes for expungement clinic participants.”