MOORHEAD — A six-month-old program aimed at helping Minnesotans seal their criminal records is helping some create better lives for themselves and their families, an attorney who is in charge of the program said.
Since being launched in October, the Help Seal My Record program has attracted 1,407 applications for records to be expunged as of March 29, according to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. The state set up the justice reform program to help residents seal misdemeanor convictions and 50 non-violent felonies from their records at no cost.
A conviction can prevent people from getting a job or housing despite completing sentences and probation, said Nilushi Ranaweera, an assistant attorney general who is a lead for the expungement program. It also can hinder credit, education and public assistance.
An expungement can cost attorney and application fees and usually requires hearings in counties where a conviction happened, Ranaweera said.
Some don’t apply if they can’t afford it — each petition costs $300 just to file, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Residents may not know that they can apply, and if they do, the complicated and time-consuming process can be intimidating, the office said.
Other barriers include having cases in different counties, which would require a petition for each one. That can lead to increased costs, according to a University of Minnesota study on record expungements. The process to file a petition for expungement can vary by county, the study said.
The Help Seal My Record program allows residents to apply at helpsealmyrecord.org without paying for an attorney, going through the long traditional process or going to hearings. The Attorney General’s Office reviews applications to see which are eligible, and county prosecutors decide if the case should be expunged.
“People need this, and this gives them a fresh start,” Ranaweera said.
The state said it had reviewed 331 requests and has confirmed that 206 of those cases were eligible as of March 29. County prosecutors have approved 36 applications for expungement.
Clay County hasn’t approved any expungements under the state’s new program, though it had 34 applications. Two of the three applications reviewed were eligible.
Brian Melton, the lead prosecutor in Clay County, said Wednesday he was not surprised by the number of requests for his county. His office handles 30 to 40 expungement requests each year, he said.
He said his office hasn’t seen the two eligible applications yet, but he noted expungement is an important part of the justice system for those who have paid their debts to society.
“If those people can ultimately understand their wrongs and then get themselves back on the right track and make themselves productive citizens, I think that’s a good thing,” he said.
Otter Tail County Attorney Michelle Eldien said her office received its first batch of cases for review last month. In total, 18 have applied, half have been reviewed and four are eligible. One case was denied, but Otter Tail County is still reviewing other cases, she said.
The county is alerted when cases are eligible for expungement, according to Eldien, who said she supports a state program that pushes the burden of reviewing the cases to the Attorney General’s Office as long as county prosecutors still have a say in the final decision.
Not everyone will qualify for expungement, Eldien said. Different factors play a role, including the severity and circumstances of a crime, as well as steps a person has taken to rehabilitate themselves, Otter Tail County Assistant Attorney Sarah Estep-Larson said.
For example, stealing a candy bar versus embezzling are completely different, Eldien explained.
Prosecutors try to be fair and just when balancing public interest and a person’s right to have an expungement so they can rehabilitate, she said. As administrators of justice, prosecutors have to consider public safety and make sure a person can move past their criminal record, she said.
The program can be life-changing not only for those convicted of crimes but for those they care for, Ranaweera said. She mentioned a woman who had a domestic abuse conviction on her record. The unnamed woman had to work three jobs to support her children as a single mother.
She was seeking a nursing degree to better provide for her children but couldn’t do so with the conviction on her record, Ranaweera said. Getting the expungement provided a better life for her and her children, Ranaweera added.
“When I was reaching out to tell her she was getting an order (for expungement), she said that will be the best Christmas present ever,” she said.
North Dakota doesn't have an expungement program like Minnesota's. North Dakotans can petition a court to have a record sealed, but that crime will still appear on an individual's record in most cases.