Having a criminal record can make it hard to find a job, and a place to live. Missouri allows some offenses to be erased from a person’s record, or expunged, years after an offender has finished serving his or her sentence, but it’s a tricky process.
That's why volunteers at Code for Kansas City and the law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City started the "Clear My Record Expungement Project." Saturday was "Expungement Day."
Before the 8 a.m. start time, people were waiting in the lobby of a community building at 27th and Prospect. Some 600 had also signed up on line for help with their records. Dozens of others, like Emerly Hyler, found out about the event on social media and just showed up.
“I said, I need to get my butt down here and you know, see what's going on because I, yes, have a record that's been on me since 20 something years ago, when I was young and dumb, like most folks. And, I'm almost 43. I'm ready for this to be off my record,” said Hyler, waiting to see a volunteer lawyer.
For many at this event, having a criminal record is a major obstacle to getting financial stability for themselves and their families.
Ellen Suni, dean emeritus at the UMKC School of Law, is a driving force behind the Clear My Record Expungement Project.
“In many instances, people can't get jobs, they are barred from lots of different kinds of housing," Suni says. "If they can get this off their records then you can answer “No” to the question, “Have I ever been convicted”.”
Not just any crime can be expunged. Convictions are permanent for the most serious felonies: murder, kidnapping, habitual driving while intoxicated. The punishment for the crime to be expunged has to have ended a certain number of years ago, and there’s a cap on how many crimes can be expunged from any one person’s record, 2 misdemeanors, one felony.
Suni says the statute is complex; it’s not even entirely clear to her what can and can’t be wiped from a criminal record.
“There are still a lot of limitations. For example, stealing can't be expunged yet. All drug offenses except Class A if a felony can be expunged,” says Suni. “So there's this crazy quilt of what can and can't be expunged.”
Suni says there’s a legislative effort in Jefferson City to open more crimes, like stealing, to the list of offenses that can be wiped from a criminal record in Missouri.
Beyond figuring out if a particular offense can be expunged, the process requires a lot of paperwork and access to personal records. People attending the Expungement Day event didn’t walk away with clean records, they simply started a process that could take months and involve at least one court hearing.
That’s why events like the one last weekend are important. Suni says there will be more of them on the Missouri side, and that one is in the works for Kansas City, Kansas. Suni says the expungement laws in Kansas are more straightforward, but that navigating them can still require some legal guidance.
Editor's Note: The photograph at the top of this story was switched out of concern for the privacy of the individual pictured.
Frank Morris is a National Correspondent at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @franknewsman.