“Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul,
and sings the tune without the words,
and never stops at all.”
John looked at me and proclaimed, “I am turning my life around. I’ve cleaned up my credit report, and gotten my driver’s license. This is the next step.” With those words, he picked up his pen and signed the paperwork to clear up his criminal record. John was hope in action.
I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of hope through my work at Well for the Journey, a center that offers innovative programs for spiritual wellness. Since leaving my law firm years ago, my energies have been devoted to developing programs and classes that help people lead more meaningful, centered lives. Hope is a motivating force within each of us that inspires and strengthens people to move into a better place. Hope is likely the catalyst that propelled me to dust off my law degree and begin volunteering with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service to help in a very specific area of law: expungement.
Expungement is the legal process by which you can have criminal charges removed from public view. Governed by state law, the rules by which one may expunge charges vary from state to state. In Maryland, generally only those charges for which you have NOT been convicted can be expunged. This covers a fairly wide array of dispositions, including an acquittal (Not Guilty), and situations where police or prosecutors decide not to proceed further than arrest. Convictions for certain “nuisance” crimes (for example, open container and disorderly conduct) and those that are no longer crimes (such as possession of small amounts of marijuana) can be expunged under certain circumstances.
Expungement is a place where hope and justice meet.
To their credit, Maryland lawmakers have recognized the need for expungement to be more accessible and available. The last two years have brought welcome changes. First in laws that took effect in October of 2015, and recently as part of a criminal justice reform package passed in 2016. There are almost one million expungeable cases in Baltimore City alone, and that number will rise when new changes take effect in the upcoming months.
I first learned about the importance of expungement over ten years ago while serving as a job counselor with an organization called Genesis Jobs (which later became part of Goodwill Industries). The existence of criminal charges on one’s record is a monumental obstacle to employment. It was incredibly frustrating that good, qualified job candidates could not be find work due to their arrest charges for minor crimes, especially when they were never convicted of the charges! I kept mumbling that someone needed to do something about this problem.
Then came Baltimore’s spring, almost a year ago, when our city erupted. In the wake of the death of Freddie Gray and the uprisings that ensued, I wondered how I could help bring hope to those living in seemingly hopeless situations. What set of gifts and skills did I have to share? So many people living in or near Baltimore wondered what they could do to help heal our city and its people. There are no easy answers to the multi-dimensional problems that persist in our city- it will take a multitude of people playing unique, small parts. After months of praying for guidance about how I could contribute in a practical way, I came across a flyer for an expungement clinic and a telephone number to call for Maryland Volunteer Lawyers. Then I learned that lawyers got free training…there were no excuses. I gave myself a little pep talk, picked up the phone and volunteered to help at the clinic.
Hearing the stories of my clients has been humbling. Sometimes people have a few troubled years and then work hard to turn their lives around. Not surprisingly, addiction often plays a role in those bad years. I’ve met people, including a woman in her late seventies, who weren’t even aware that they had a record until they went to apply for a job. This can happen when someone close to you gets arrested and you are nearby and get rounded up too. Those charges remain on your record even if you are never prosecuted. Even when people have convictions on their record that they understand cannot be expunged, they want other charges expunged. One man said, “Hey, I take responsibility for that crime. But those others on there I want off my record- that was not me.”
While each person has a unique story, they share something in common: hope for a better future. I’m convinced that hope is manifested through relationships. Sometimes we are called to be with people in seemingly hopeless situations and be a sign of hope. We can help others believe in a better future, even when they can’t see it. To do this requires suspending- or moving through- our cynicism, judgments, and fear of people who are different than us. It’s not easy…but this is how we build hope together. This is how we move forward as a community.
As I shook hands with John and said goodbye, he commented on the beautiful spring day. I responded, “Spring is a time of hope, isn’t it? Good luck to you.”
1. If you want to learn more about expungement visit mdexpungement.com, a website developed by Matthew Stubenberg, a talented attorney at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.
2. I am deeply inspired by Bryan Stevenson and his book, Just Mercy. Book review coming soon to this blog.