A quarter of a million people are eligible for mandatory expungement in Delaware, according to ACLU Delaware. Beginning in August 2024, those eligible for mandatory expungement will have their records cleared automatically.
ACLU Delaware is helping people expunge their records by partnering with entities like the Delaware Office of Defense Services, First State Community Action Agency, the Wilmington Alliance and local churches. Advocates are attempting to meet those with needs where they are, and recently they were at Trinity Faith Christian Center in Lewes.
“An automated process is set to start next August that will take those folks who are eligible for mandatory expungements through the process using an automated system,” said ACLU Delaware Deputy Policy & Advocacy Director John Reynolds.
Reynolds said the automation will clear the records of people who were not convicted, not found guilty or whose charges were dropped. He said without workshops like the one in Lewes Aug. 10, a lot of people don’t know they are eligible or that people can access that record.
“Even if you’re never convicted, if you’re taken to the station and immediately released, that record exists and will be publicly available,” Reynolds said. “It will show up in background checks when you apply for employment, when you apply for housing, when you apply for bank loans or educational opportunities.”
The mandatory expungement process, and future automated system, is designed to provide relief to individuals who may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time or committed nonviolent or other less-serious misdemeanors. A discretionary expungement is a petition to the court and will be granted if the existence of the record constitutes a manifest injustice. There are a number of nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors eligible for discretionary expungement, but serious charges and convictions such as manslaughter, murder, rape, pedophilia and vehicular homicide are not.
Social justice advocates and religious leaders encourage those with a record to try their best to take steps to clear them.
“A record exists forever unless it is expunged, and when it is expunged, it is effectively sealed and no longer publicly available,” Reynolds said.
Helping individuals through the process is Assistant Public Defender Eliza Hirst, who is in charge of post-dispositional relief at the Office of Defense Services. The only attorney in Delaware to provide legal services for expungement for free, Hirst was at the workshop.
“Our office has a web portal where people can file. They put their name, address and consent so we can look up their records to see whether they are in fact eligible for expungement,” Hirst said.
She said certain charges are available for expungement right away, like mandatory expungements, while others require a five- to seven-year wait. She recommends working with her office to check for eligibility before investing financially.
“If someone is eligible for expungement, it costs $52 to get their certified criminal history – that fee may be going up by the end of the year. And then it costs $75 to process the criminal record for expungement with the state police or in Superior Court,” Hirst said.
The public defender said her office is fortunate because it receives funding from grants, foundations and law firms that believe in expungements. She added that the Delaware Center for Justice also receives funding, and it works in collaboration with the agency.
“If it’s mandatory, they don’t need a lawyer. They can just go and get fingerprinted, and send paperwork to Delaware State Police,” Hirst said. “If it’s discretionary, there’s more work involved because you have to show that it’s a manifestation of injustice. You have to file in the right courts.”
If a person is eligible for the office’s services, they try to file a petition on that person’s behalf and represent them throughout the process. Cases that need pardons are a bit more involved and take time.
“The few times I’ve ever had one denied is because someone actually still owed outstanding restitution,” Hirst said.
At the Aug. 10 workshop, Hirst was busy reviewing the cases brought in and determining which, if any, expungement route would be available.
“The Office of Defense Services strongly believes that no one should be defined by one mistake or one bad act. This is our opportunity to help the community make sure that people can live the lives they want, dream big and not be held back by their records,” Hirst said.
Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, D-Wilmington, made the trip to Sussex County.
“This is the kind of work a lieutenant governor does – looks for opportunities to ensure the people can get second chances,” she said, explaining she is running for the office in 2024.
She said Delaware didn’t always believe in second chances, but when the Clean Slate Initiative was passed in 2021, it became a priority.
“The Rev. Rita Paige and her team put this together with other pastors from Sussex County, and when the faith-based community comes together, that’s what it’s about: second chances,” Dorsey Walker said.
She said no matter where one comes from or what their religion is, people make mistakes and deserve a chance to clean up what they did in their past to have a better future.
“One of the things that’s significant for us as a server church is that we deal with issues that impact the lives of individuals,” said Paige, adding that to help stabilize someone, the shadow of the justice system cannot continue to hang over them when they are trying to be productive members of the community.
In addition to expungement services, food trucks were on site along with the Beebe Mobile Unit and Behavioral Health team.