Believing in Second Chances at Record-Sealing Day

It’s hard to say what’s more moving about a record-sealing clinic: the faces of those people who just got a fresh chance, or the kindness of the crowd of volunteers and staffers who showed up to help them start over.

This fall, the CALS Dee Brown Library hosted a record-sealing day coordinated by the Center for Arkansas Legal Services with the help of the Pulaski County Clerk’s Office, the Arkansas Crime Information Center (ACIC), and Goodwill. All partner organizations came together to achieve one goal: assist people to seal away minor criminal offenses from their public records—offenses often committed a decade or more in the past.

Opening closed doors

The sealing of these minor offenses from most public records opens up new possibilities in jobs, credit, and housing. A years-old criminal offense, even a misdemeanor, can often derail a life journey and keep a person from rejoining the economy as a productive community member. Record-sealing removes that “scarlet letter” of stigma for even a minor offense—a stigma that often prevents employers and landlords from seeing who people are today, rather than who they might have been a decade ago. (Full records will still appear in searches by a limited number of organizations such as law enforcement, schools and prisons.)

Zina Frazier of the Center for Arkansas Legal Services is passionate about the pressing need for this kind of record-sealing: “So many people have a violation from 10-20 years ago and it’s still sitting on their record. We see more misdemeanors than anything,” she said. The purpose of the event is for us to ask, ‘What can we do to try to help you get back to work?’”

Jean Turner Carter, Executive Director of the Center, stood by observing the well-oiled process of the record-sealing clinic, as clients moved from one assistance station to the other.

“After this process, people can improve their employment with better jobs, find better housing, and improve their credit,” Carter said. “And these better economic opportunities lead to a more stable community as a whole.”

“It can be overwhelming for some to go to the courthouse and figure out this complex process, especially for those who have had bad experiences at the courthouse,” Carter said. “We’ve heard great things from our clients about the increased opportunities they’ve found in jobs and housing after going through this process. And it’s wonderful to work with all these volunteer attorneys who are giving back to the community, as well as with our partners such as the library system, ACIC, the Clerk’s Office, and Goodwill.”

Volunteer attorneys provide free guidance

The volunteer attorneys formed an impressively large crew. Gathered at tables in the library’s main meeting room, they greeted clients with respect, helped fill out paperwork, and printed documents right then and there to allow clients to move on to the next stage of the process.

Robert Cortinez has been an attorney in Little Rock for 28 years. “I felt the need to come out and give my time in order to help these people find brighter paths in the future,” Cortinez said. “So many doors have been closed to them from things that happened 20 years ago. This process helps them live their lives the way they were meant to live them.”

Tabitha Lee, Expungement Specialist, described how the Center for Arkansas Legal Services also helps clients follow up after their filing. “Sometimes they run into barriers after filing if they haven’t paid all their fines or taken required classes,” she said.

Zina Frazier nodded. “There’s a process they still have to follow after they file with the Clerk’s office,” she said. “So if they get an objection, they can call us back and we’ll see if we can assist them.”

A one-stop clinic at the library simplifies a complex process

Library staff welcomed the opportunity to host the event and praised the benefits of the partnership for local community members. “This is an encapsulated process, which is beneficial because everything happens in one stop,” said Karen Guthrie of the CALS Dee Brown Library. “In the past, people had to bring in all these extra documents from other offices, but now it can all happen here.”

Combined assistance from volunteer lawyers and partner organizations allowed clients to go all the way through the process and file their paperwork the same day. A man in his forties walked to the library exit, his face lit up with happiness and relief, cradling a bundle of papers marked: “FILED.”

With this kind of fresh start to benefit both individuals and the entire community, it’s not surprising that record-sealing clinics, hosted in a variety of locations in central Arkansas, are now in demand. Julie Norman, Managing Attorney for the Center, is pleased to see increased recognition for the hope offered by record-sealing assistance.” We used to have to persuade people to host clinics. But now that the word is getting around, they ask us,” she said.

Executive Director Nate Coulter of the Central Arkansas Library System looks forward to future collaborations with these partners in record-sealing clinics. “It’s a privilege to join in this effort with the Center for Arkansas Legal Services and these partners who are dedicated to renewing opportunities for our community,” Coulter said. “We’re happy to serve as a hub to provide free meeting space, enthusiastic assistance, and widespread access to some of the most needed public services in the region. Getting people connected and helping them find their full potential is at the heart of our public library mission. Everyone in the community has value to offer and should have the chance to do so.”

For questions about the record-sealing clinics, please call the Center for Arkansas Legal Services at (501) 376-3423 or toll-free at (800) 950-5817.