People with criminal histories can explore options for erasing their records at a clinic in Homewood Saturday. The Allegheny County Public Defender’s Office will host the event, at the Carnegie Library of Homewood from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Attendees will find out if they are eligible to erase past arrests or charges through expungement. And if they qualify, attorneys, social workers and other staff from the public defender’s office will help them start the record-clearing process.
“The barriers to seeking expungement are real, and in some cases, they’re insurmountable,” said Matt Dugan, the acting director of the public defender’s office.
Dugan said his office could help clients waive court filing fees, potentially saving $22 to $250.
The public defender said his office has recently taken new steps to help clients clear their records.
For example, the office now stations an intake clerk at the Pittsburgh Municipal Courthouse to help indigent defendants whose charges have been dropped or dismissed, seek expungement immediately after hearings.
“We’re making it as easy as possible for clients,” Dugan said. “They don’t have to come back. They don’t have to appear for court. They don’t have to do anything. So we’re really bringing that service to clients in the courtroom.”
In August, the public defender’s office launched an online platform, called Project Reset, to help clients learn if they are eligible for expungement.
Anyone in the state can fill out a questionnaire on the site. Depending on visitors’ results, they could work with Allegheny County defenders to erase their records, or to seal them so they are at least hidden from public view.
The site tells people who were arrested or charged elsewhere in Pennsylvania where they can get help in other counties.
People are eligible for expungement if they have past arrests or charges that did not result in a conviction. Summary convictions sometimes qualify as well.
Those with other types of convictions can learn about their options for record sealing or clemency at Saturday’s clinic.
Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Act, for example, automatically hides non-convictions, summary offenses and most nonviolent misdemeanors from public view, for those who have been conviction-free for at least 10 years and have paid all their court fines.
People convicted of more serious crimes must either petition the courts to have their records sealed, or ask the governor for a pardon.
Dugan noted that people tend to have a harder time finding work and housing while their criminal histories remain public.
“That means your neighbors can see it. That means potential employers can see it. That means when you apply to school, schools can see it,” Dugan said.
He also noted that courts consider past arrests, even if they did not result in convictions, when deciding whether to release defendants who face new charges and are awaiting trial.
Dugan said, by assisting with record clearing, his office provides “full-service representation.”
“If we’re successful [in court] – and we’re successful often in helping clients have charges dismissed, have charges withdrawn,” Dugan said, “the next logical step … is to have that record of arrest expunged.”