September 26 through October 3 is National Expungement Week of Action and Awareness (NEW), and a series of in-person and virtual community meetings are taking place around the country to help people impacted by criminal records to expunge or seal them (making them no longer publicly viewable). If someone’s record can’t be expunged or sealed, they can still access legal advice and connections to other essential services.
Launched in 2018, NEW teams up with schools, churches and food pantries to host events, and with public defenders to lead trainings. The nonprofit National Expungement Works helps coordinate the event nationally, but the movement is essentially decentralized. Anyone who wants to participate can host an event, volunteer or sponsor one.
NEW initially focused on expunging cannabis convictions. But since 2019, it’s expanded to all criminal records, and to intersecting issues including the drug war, racist policing and the criminal justice system.
NEW’s 2021 programming goes beyond criminal record relief and focuses on supporting impacted people in any way they may need. There are Zoom sessions where people with records can learn how to expunge them; others that train lawyers in the process; even “mental health workouts.” In-person events include school-supply drives and even brake-light clinics where attendees can get their lights fixed for free.
Police frequently use broken brake lights as a pretext to pull over drivers on the road, after which they issue fines or try to find (or plant) evidence of more serious charges. Like criminalization in general, these incidents disproportionately target Black and Brown people, even though white drivers are more likely to have illegal items in their cars. They also often start a domino effect of punitive fines and fees that cost people their licenses.
“Once you check that box and they see that you’ve been in trouble before, it all changes.”
Tommie Vaughn-Navarro was arrested multiple times between age 18 and 22 for possession of various drugs, among other charges. She then spent about a year incarcerated in a California state prison.
Vaughn-Navarro, who takes care of her disabled mother, wanted to find employment working with children or seniors. But for the past 25 years, her criminal record prevented her from being hired in those capacities, and she’d long since given up trying.
“You can be the most confident person walking into an interview,” she told Filter. “But once you check that box and they see that you’ve been in trouble before, it all changes.”
In March 2020, she started to pursue sealing her record with the help of the Los Angeles-based Social Impact Center, which leads local NEW efforts. Though the process has been time-consuming, she said the organization’s support has made it easy. In addition to helping her navigate the paperwork, Social Impact Center covered the application costs.
“I would have never been able to get that done by myself, financially, and also just not being knowledgeable in the ways to do that,” Vaughn-Navarro said. “We’re not all knowledgable about the law and the systems.”
On August 3, more than a year and a half after after she began the process and more than two decades after she was first convicted, Vaughn-Navarro’s record was finally sealed.
“It’s been a real blessing for me … It’s changed a lot,” she said. “Being able to go somewhere and not having to worry about checking that box.”
She can now apply for a job at her youngest son’s school. And after gaining decades of experience caring for her mother without a paycheck, she’s eligible for employment with elder care facilities.
“Just having that security that you don’t have anything lurking under your name is such a relief.”
While most states have expanded their expungement or sealing laws in recent years, in 2018 Pennsylvania became the first to adopt a “clean slate” law. It automatically seals arrest records after charges are dropped, and seals most misdemeanor convictions after 10 years if no additional convictions have been incurred. Connecticut, Michigan, Utah and Virginia have since implemented clean slate laws of their own.
Congress has introduced a version of that same law each year since 2018, but to date the federal level has seen no reform at all.
Nearly one in three US adults has a criminal record. That’s more than 70 million people who can be legally discriminated against by prospective employers, landlords, banks and schools. If you’re on food stamps, you can lose them. If you’re an immigrant, documented or undocumented, you can be deported. Altogether, more than 44,000 distinct forms of discrimination have been identified by the federal government.
This is because criminal records can be publicly searched. Hence the national expungement movement’s central demand: Wipe criminal records for people who have served their time.
The government can do this one of two ways: seal or expunge. Sealing a record shields it from public view—employers can’t search it, but it can still be accessed through a court order. Expunging goes further—destroying the record so that, from a legal perspective, the conviction never happened. Which option you can access depends on which state you live in. California, for example, only offers sealing.
In 2020, NEW reached over 4,300 people in 24 cities. Of that number, 200 people cleared or reduced outstanding court fees and fines, and another 663 began the process of expunging or sealing their record.
In Massachusetts, where marijuana is legal for adult use, groups like Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC) are highlighting the hypocrisy of a state cannabis licensing board that discriminates against people with drug convictions. Residents with certain felony convictions, including drug-related ones, can be banned from owning or even working in cannabis businesses. Massachusetts cannabis business owners also remain predominantly white and male.
“You’re trying to save yourself and your community too.”
“The cannabis industry in Massachusetts has really insulated itself away from community organizers and community activists,” MRCC lobbyist Saskia Vann James told Filter. And as critical as it is to ensure that people with cannabis-related convictions can enter the industry if they choose to, she wants to make sure the movement doesn’t stop there.
“We have to have a real and difficult conversation on how funding can go towards people outside the cannabis industry. If they just want to get an ice cream truck—whatever it is that’s bringing you peace,” she said. “People are coming home from jail and saying, ‘I don’t want to touch the plant anymore, I want to do something else with my life now.’ They should be receiving money to go into whatever business they want.”
As a teenager, Vann James lost one parent to overdose and was removed from custody of the other. “I was an orphan,” she said. “I’ve had family members that became [incarcerated]. I still do. It’s completely disrupted my whole timeline and sense of safety.”
Now a mother herself, Vann James helps coordinate cannabis and racial justice efforts throughout Massachusetts. MRCC is hosting two expungement and CORI (criminal offender record information) events this week, as well as promoting a new series on community justice and safety that will aim to reach formerly incarcerated people.
“You’re trying to save yourself and your community too.”
Photograph via Radford, Virginia