Center for Justice Reform Receives Grant to Support Expungement Clinics

Expungement Day, a project of the Center for Justice Reform at Vermont Law School, the Pennywise Foundation, and Vermont Legal Aid, started as a seed.  The three organizations saw a need and jumped together with the support of several state’s attorneys to create several day-long clinics in Windsor and Chittenden Counties.  The clinics were so successful they created more, building a structured collaboration.

Recognizing the need was greater than expected, the Center for Justice Reform applied for, and was awarded a grant from the Vermont Bar Foundation.  The grant will cover three important pieces of this expungement work.

The $45,000 grant will provide trainings in conjunction with Vermont Legal Aid to equip Vermont Law School students for expungement clinics being held in counties throughout Vermont, as well as to cover filing fees for people who do not qualify for a fee waiver but for whom the cost is nevertheless prohibitive.  A third portion of the funds will pay a research fellow one day per week to look at other expungement models and processes throughout the United States to guide discussions about better efficiencies and policies around expungements and the sealing of records in Vermont.

“The ability to hire a research fellow is an especially exciting piece of this grant, because it will allow us to examine practices from other states.  This offers the possibility of creating efficiencies which will help us better serve Vermonters facing similar challenges as people in other states,” said Stephanie Clark, Assistant Director of the Center for Justice Reform.

Many Vermonters with a conviction on their record become trapped in a cycle of poverty.  The conviction becomes a brand that isolates them from employment opportunities.  That, in turn, affects their housing and transportation, which slams into their children, tipping them into the cycle of generational poverty. 

The clinics give law students a chance to see first-hand how the judicial system works.  “It has affected me a lot,” said Ricardo Edwards, a student in the Master of Arts in Restorative Justice program at VLS, and who will pursue the JD program this fall.  “When you make a mistake, the stigma follows you the rest of your life.  There is a real power to change lives profoundly for the better through expungement.”

It is important for law students not only to learn about remedies but also to sit down with the people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.  “They are able to see and hear about other’s experiences.  It is nearly impossible to sit down with a person and not hear about the grave injustices they experienced in their arrest, processing, or after when the justice system failed to respond in a commensurate way,” said Mairead O'Reilly from Vermont Legal Aid.  “These trainings are a compelling way to cultivate a new generation of advocates who start off in their career believing that another way of administering justice is not only possible, but it is actually necessary.” 

Law students will carry their experiences with the training and clinics with them long after they graduate.  Evan Antal, a JD student at VLS, reflected about how criminal justice reform has become a key interest of his.  “The clinic gave me a real and insightful look at how hugely important expungement is.  It has a lot of weight in making the criminal justice system more just and balanced.” 

Antal told the story of an “average mom” who was convicted of a white-collar crime two decades ago, who is unable to secure a loan for her family.  “The training gave me the direct benefit of learning the process to identify what charges qualify for being expunged, so I can help people disperse the cloud that has been following them around for years. It’s tangible change.”   

The law can be confusing.  Though there is a process to expunge certain misdemeanors and some felonies from a person’s record, navigating that process can be a challenge.  Once the petition for expungement has been written, it costs $90 to file with the court.  If a person files multiple petitions in several counties, the cost adds up quickly, creating another barrier to a clean record and reconfirming the cycle of poverty.

Of the 50 people at the last clinic, most qualified for a fee waiver.  For people with slightly higher income levels which disqualified them from a fee waiver but for whom the fee was still prohibitive, the Pennywise Foundation generously provided financial support to cover their filing fees. The new Vermont Bar Foundation grant will provide $2,500 per year for three years to cover people stuck in this gap. 

“Between the time that we filed the grant application and when it was awarded, the list of people in need of financial assistance for fee waivers has grown exponentially.  We are looking for funding to cover that gap,” said Clark.  The Center for Justice Reform encourages anyone interested in making a donation toward the expungement work to contact them. A donation of $90 can mean the difference between someone living with a misdemeanor on their record and a path out of poverty.  Many of the people at the expungement clinics have older convictions from their younger days.  These people paid their debt to society and in the intervening years, they have led lawful lives.  It is unfair that they continue to pay for their crimes by being denied jobs, housing, and other societal opportunities.

“A surprising outcome of the training was to learn that not everyone believes in Restorative Justice,” said Edwards.  “It is an issue of geographic justice.  While it is relatively easy to get a charge expunged in one county, it is nearly impossible in another.  State’s Attorneys and prosecutors have a lot of power.”

Much of the work for expungement is done in advance of the clinic.  The schedules fill quickly; the last clinic was filled to capacity two weeks before the date.  When a person gets onto the schedule, advocates review docket sheets to identify eligibility.  The trainings that will be funded through the Vermont Bar Foundation grant will allow VLS students to better understand the complex path to expungement.  It will empower scores of young legal advocates to change the way that our society approaches harm and conflict.

“We look at how harm and conflict exist and look for paths to repair it,” said Clark.  The model that is more widely accepted in society is isolation, from suspending children with behavioral problems from school, to boxing people with convictions out of employment or into jail.  Restorative justice is not only for adults.  There are school districts in Vermont that are practicing a restorative approach.

“It’s out there and it’s working,” said Clark. 

Rather than suspension for children with behavioral problems, it allows for children and their peers to learn a process to address harm and conflict.  The skills that are learned will have profound effects on our society as these children grow into adults.

The process of restorative justice and expungement is relatively new.  New relationships are being forged and research is being undertaken.  For it to be wholly successful will require collaboration, careful examination of the law, and strong partnerships.  Vermont Legal Aid, the Pennywise Foundation, and the Center for Justice Reform are charting new territory in Vermont.  With their vision and a little bit of funding, modifying the way the state approaches harm and conflict will change incarceration rates and economic opportunity for tens of thousands of Vermonters.