A criminal record—even one that contains only a single conviction—can constitute a serious detriment to an individual's ability to secure employment. In some cases, it even has an impact on the process of finding housing. The opportunity to seek expungement for old or minor criminal convictions can play an important part in the rehabilitative process. However, taking advantage of expungement is often easier said than done. For Martin Luther King County in Washington State, home to Seattle, lack of easy access to legal opportunities contributes to a cycle of recidivism and poverty.
The poverty cycle places a growing burden on the county's operational budget. In response to rising concerns about restricted opportunities for those in the county with a record, the county council recently adopted a new proposal to make accessing expungement easier for tens of thousands of King County residents. A recent interview conducted by the Seattle Medium with a member of the King County council shed light on the legislative body's efforts and the reasoning behind the new push.
In the interview, Councilman Larry Gossett said the county's general revenue budget totals nearly $893 million annually, but a whopping 73% of that amount goes towards to the city's criminal justice programs. While the full county budget tops $12 billion, most of this money is earmarked for county-level services. This forces the general revenue budget, which could be used to develop and improve the county, to support the burden of paying for the criminal justice system. The new program hopes to improve opportunities for those with non-violent misdemeanor and felony convictions with the goal of reducing recidivism and promoting reintegration.
How does it work? Washington state law already provides a mechanism for an individual to apply for expungement, but it typically requires the assistance of a lawyer since a judge must receive and review the request. The average fee in King County is $250 per hour—a cost most residents with convictions cannot manage. The new rules will allow King County public defenders, who already handle the majority of the area's criminal cases, to assist in the preparation of expungement requests. With new funding available for this purpose, the council hopes to broadly widen access to fresh opportunities.
Councilman Gossett said critics of the plan accused proponents of "coddling prisoners," but was quick to point out a clear pattern of good behavior forms the foundation of the process. Misdemeanor offenders must demonstrate a clean record for five years to become eligible, while non-violent felons must have records clean for 7 to 10 years. Per Gossett, the goal is not to expunge records for those at "high risk" to re-offend but to open the door for those who have paid their debt. The new rules will go into effect in March 2019, but public defenders can begin reviewing cases immediately as their dockets allow.
As King County moves to improve opportunities for second chances, many others across the country may not even know they can improve their employability with expungement. Through backgroundchecks.com's MyClearStart program, individuals can make a free determination of their eligibility for expungement. For those for whom the opportunity is available, MyClearStart can connect you with legal help to guide you through the next steps of the process. Expunged records will typically never show up on a background check, enabling you to apply for jobs, housing, loans, and more with confidence.