Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the organizer of the event, the Wichita Bar Association.
When Robert Moody, one of the lead organizers for Clean Slate Day, showed up at the Sedgwick County Courthouse at 7:30 a.m. on March 4, he thought there might be a few people waiting. He did not expect hundreds.
Clean Slate Day was organized to – in one day, for free – process applications to clear people’s criminal records. The process usually takes two months and can cost hundreds of dollars.
By 7:30 a.m., the jury room was already filled and there was a line stretching into the foyer of the courthouse.
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“I don’t know how that happened,” Moody said. “Typically, they don’t even open (the court) until 7:30 a.m.”
Some people had started lining up as early as 6 a.m.
The organizers with the Wichita Bar Association had expected 300 or 400 people, according to Kellie Hogan, another organizer, but more than 1,000 showed up. After they passed out 900 tickets, she stood at the back and did “crowd control,” handing out information sheets to hundreds more people about how they could get their records expunged.
They did not have the time or resources to help everyone. They processed around 150 records that day for about 100 people – some had multiple crimes expunged. That’s about half of the amount typically processed in a year, the organizers said. But hundreds of people who stayed until 5 p.m. left before they could be helped.
“It’s been reported that we didn’t have any funds, but we actually just ran out of time,” Moody said.
There’s still around $50,000 of $65,000 available to pay for the expungements. The big hold-up was the time it took to do background checks to make sure people were eligible. A few of the crimes were so old, dating back to the ’70s and ’80s, Hogan said, that the volunteers from the district attorney’s office had to look for court records on microfiche. That took extra time.
The lawyers took down the information of everyone who remained until the end of the day and promised to continue helping them. Moody said he had been working on the weekend and Hogan said on Tuesday that she had just processed a few more that day.
“Some people kind of likened it to Black Friday,” Hogan said. “It was worth getting up and waiting in line to get a free expungement, like it is to get a discount computer. But we’re continuing to process the people, just not on a big scale, on a big day.”
Hogan estimated about a third of the people who showed up were not eligible, because the crime took place elsewhere, not enough time had passed, the crime wasn’t eligible or, in some cases, they hadn’t paid all of their other court fines. But even those people learned about the expungement process and how they might, in the future, be able to get their records cleaned.
Around 60 volunteers helped. One copy machine had been donated. They could have used two, Hogan said.
But they learned lessons for next time. If they get people’s names ahead of time, the district attorneys could begin the background checks ahead of time.
They also learned about some unfair legal practices that could be put on their legislative agenda for the future: For instance, people who have received a not-guilty verdict on crimes still have to apply for an expungement. They also found that in some random years, a DUI infraction could be expunged and in other years it couldn’t.
Lawyers who are volunteering their time are still processing a backlog of hundreds more expungement applications. But in the future, if they could find enough funding, volunteer lawyers could staff an expungement clinic, Hogan said.
Even though there was a long wait and many didn’t get served, people were polite and appreciative, Hogan said. They talked about how clearing their criminal records could help them get better jobs, secure better housing and get off to a fresh start, she said.
“I saw a woman come through the courtroom who had got her expungement done,” Hogan said. “She held it up, and the crowd cheered.”