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National

Advocates In Baltimore Help Expunge Arrests That Didn't Lead To Charges

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have criminal records from minor charges. In many cases, those records never go away, even if the charges do. Those public records can be visible to potential employers. About 20 states have some way of clearing those records, but the process can be complicated and expensive. Mary Rose Madden from member station WYPR reports that in Baltimore legal advocates are trying to help people clear their slates.

MARY ROSE MADDEN, BYLINE: In the basement of a public library in west Baltimore, lawyers from Legal Aid Maryland pop open folding tables and connect portable printers. They're setting up an expungement clinic. Just a half an hour later, 47-year-old Shawn Fortune leaves the clinic in high spirits. He cleared his record of what he calls nonsense arrests, violations he was arrested for but were null processed, meaning the charges were never prosecuted.

SHAWN FORTUNE: I was pulled over for riding a bicycle without a headlight on it. And it was null processed and it was still on my record. So you would think that the null processes and those not guilty findings wouldn't even be on your record still, but they're on there.

MADDEN: And in Maryland, it's a public record. Fortune believes this held him back from getting the jobs he was going after. But his record is clear now. And Legal Aid waived the $30 per case expungement fee too.

Every week there are at least two expungement clinics happening in the city like this one, which is at the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenues. This is the neighborhood that erupted in protests after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man who died from injuries sustained while in police custody. For years, people here complained about Baltimore police officers who cleared the corners by making nonsense arrests. And those arrests left many with tainted criminal records. Legal Aid responded to the protests by setting up a weekly expungement clinic here. Josh Swanner is an attorney for that group working full time at the clinics.

JOSH SWANNER: There was a mother here with her daughter and she turned to her daughter afterwards, like, you have a brand-new mother, and, yeah.

MADDEN: After Freddie Gray's death, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the Baltimore Police Department systemically violated the constitutional rights of African-Americans and used excessive force. Among other things, they made thousands of unjustified arrests. Arrests, Swanner points out, the state's attorney never prosecuted.

SWANNER: The outcomes from all that need to be remedied, and we're doing our little part here to help with that.

MADDEN: In the past, if you were found guilty of any crime in Maryland, you couldn't get the not-guilty cases removed from your record. They were blocked from expungement, but about a year ago, that changed. A new state law opened the window for those cases to be cleared from the public record.

(CROSSTALK)

MADDEN: Baltimore Public Defenders has their expungement clinic set up in a community center. They've been at it every Wednesday for more than 10 years. But they're busier now that the new law has kicked in, helping people like 43-year-old Nicole. We're not using her full name because she wants to clear her public record.

NICOLE: I came from a drug-addicted mom, alcoholic grandparents. And through that, you know, it trickled down. And unfortunately, I got caught in the trap of drug abuse.

MADDEN: Nicole says she's 11 years sober now and working through her past. Out of Nicole's 19 cases, she had three convictions, but she was able to get 16 cases expunged. She's happy. With tears in her eyes, she heads out. But there are many, many people who need to do the same, at least tens of thousands of people in Baltimore who have hundreds of thousands of cases. For NPR News, I'm Mary Rose Madden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.