KU Legal Aid expungement clinic offers a ‘fresh start’ to people with criminal records in county

This file photo from September 2016 shows the Division IV courtroom at the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center.

Leaders at the University of Kansas School of Law Legal Aid Clinic assume there are people out there stuck in poverty because of past criminal convictions — convictions that could legally be removed from their public records if they could afford an attorney.

In an effort to help those people, the Legal Aid Clinic is planning a new outreach event it has not done before: an expungement clinic.

The “Clean Slate” Expungement Clinic will run from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutritional Kitchen (LINK), First Christian Church, 221 W. 10th St. The KU Legal Aid Clinic is organizing the clinic with Douglas County Legal Aid Society Inc. 

For some, convictions and arrests that may have happened as long as decades ago don’t reflect “who you really are anymore,” said Sarah Nelson, a third-year law student from Tahlequah, Okla., who’s a legal intern for KU Legal Aid.

“A lot of the time, prior convictions are holding these people back from trying to get a new job, trying to get a loan, trying to get into school. Even with housing, everyone is doing background checks now,” Nelson said. “It’s just like a stigma that’s holding them back from moving on with their life.”

Meredith Schnug, associate director at KU Legal Aid, said accessing those things are factors in helping people move out of poverty, and that is the overarching mission of the organization.

“We are always looking for ways that we can help the residents of Douglas County and provide a service that may not be widely available, and we also seek cases that work well for our students as far as giving them good experience, too,” Schnug said. “We kind of see it as a win for both people who need the legal assistance, but also for our legal interns to have the hands on training and experience in the courtroom.”

The clinic will help people expunge records in Douglas County District Court or Lawrence Municipal Court.

It’s open to Douglas County residents or residents from elsewhere who have records here. To be eligible, candidates generally must have an income that does not exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty level. Clients who do not qualify for a waiver of the court filing fee — $100 in municipal court and closer to $200 in district court, Schnug said — will need to pay those court costs, but no attorney’s fees, as long as they are eligible for services.

In addition to the initial meeting, clients who qualify for aid should expect at least one follow-up meeting and a court hearing, Schnug said.

“This clinic can help obtain a fresh start for people who meet the requirements of the expungement laws,” Schnug said.

Expunged records are not completely erased but are effectively erased from the public record.

“They would be sealed, so certain agencies have access to it, but for the most part it would not be accessible to the public,” Schnug said.

Not everyone or every crime is eligible for expungement.

Certain serious crimes including rape and murder can’t be expunged, Schnug said. In other cases, issues ranging from an arrest that never led to charges to a criminal conviction for which someone served time — misdemeanors or felonies — may be eligible for expungement.

The amount of time that must have passed following the issue varies depending on the violation, Schnug said. Typically the applicant cannot have had a felony conviction in the past two years and can’t have current criminal proceedings pending, she said.

Their petition must show that an expungement is warranted because they’ve made positive changes in their life and are no longer involved in criminal activity, Schnug said.

A judge must approve the expungement based on whether it’s deemed consistent with the public welfare, Schnug said. Depending on the case and whether anyone opposes the expungement, there may be a final hearing to present both sides before the judge.

Kansaslegalservices.org has detailed information about expungements in Kansas. For questions, call the KU Legal Aid Clinic at 864-5564.