How clearing the cloud of a criminal record can help ex-convicts move forward

Ronnie Gray admits he did stupid things as a young man, criminal things, like drug dealing and selling black market guns. He was caught, convicted and sent to prison.

Released in 2005, Gray says he’s been a law-abiding citizen in the years since and wants to put his life of crime and his criminal record behind him.

“Because everything is new now,” says Gray. “I have changed my life and everybody deserves another chance. We all make mistakes. And once we turn that around, we should have a chance to start a clean slate.”

That’s why Gray was one of dozens of men and women who attended a recent criminal records expungement clinic held at a church in Compton.

Ex-felon Ronnie Gray, who’s trying to get his criminal record cleared through expungement. He says having a criminal record has prevented him from finding employment in the past and might encourage others to return to a life of crime. “When you get turned down for your job because of your background, it really sets off a negative. “says Gray. “I know how to get some money, so I might as well go back to what I used to do.”  Photo: Saul Gonzalez

In the church’s community room, rows of volunteer lawyers from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and U.C. Irvine helped people with criminal records fill out documents to have their records expunged, or dismissed, by the courts.

If a request for an expungement is approved by the the court that means a former felon can answer “no” when asked whether he or she has been convicted of a crime on documents like housing and job applications.

And being able to answer “no” is a very big deal to people who’ve served their time and are now free, like Morris who doesn’t want his last name used in this story.

You would hope that people are open minded and understand that what is in the past in the past and people change, ” says Morris. “So you take a chance and say, ‘Yeah, I have a felony conviction, and you don’t get an opportunity.’ And then you wonder why.”

Expungement clinic held at Crossroads United Methodist Church in Compton, one of several such clinics organized by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. But legal experts warn that expungement doesn’t mean criminal records are sealed, or that people’s past crimes can’t be discovered on the web. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

More people are trying to dismiss their criminal records through expungement. According to the Los Angeles County Public Defender Officer , expungement requests in the county rose from about 5,400 in 2014 to more than 7,000 in 2016, a 30 percent increase.

But Giovanni Pesce with the Legal Aid Foundation says there is still a big need for more expungement clinics like the one held in Compton to help guide people through the sometimes confusing paperwork and answer their questions.

“We could do these probably every weekend and fill the room up,” Pesce says.

But expungement isn’t a legal magic that makes past criminal records vanish completely. Even if an expungement petition is granted, court records will still show an arrest and conviction.

And with enough digging, people can find those records says John Jacobs, a law professor at New York University and the author of the “The Eternal Criminal Record.”

The open court system means that criminal records are eternally available in the United States, and you can assume that they are a matter of public record,” says Jacobs. 

Jacobs also warns ex-felons about the practical limits of expungement especially in the age of the internet, where an entire for profit industry has developed to research people’s pasts, including their criminal records.

“And there is a whole network of scores of private vendors who collect this information and sell it to employers and others who are interested in having it,” says Jacobs. 

But back at the expungement clinic in Compton, Ronnie Gray says society has to find better ways for people who’ve committed crimes, have been punished and reformed, to leave the past in the past.

“You know, the system is not set up for people who are going straight,” says Gray. “You know, they take a person’s past and constantly dig it up over and over again. That’s like a grave. Once a person has done their time, that’s supposed to be showing they are rehabilitated. That’s the reason you released the person.”