For dozens of people who spent their Saturday afternoon in the nondescript lobby of a strip mall across from the Baton Rouge Police Department, the stakes couldn't have been higher.
They were all there waiting and hoping for just one thing — the expungement of their criminal record so they could move forward, free of what can often be an obstacle to improving their lives.
The group, 41 people in total, were the latest participants in the Baton Rouge Easy Expungement Screening, a new program held on the first Saturday of the month where local agency volunteers gather under one roof to fast track the removals of qualifying cases from criminal records.
An expungement means the person's criminal record is no longer part of publicly accessible court files.
The volunteers have assessed the cases of about 400 East Baton Rouge residents since the program launched in October.
“We know how much this is an issue for people who have found themselves in trouble with the system in the past and once you find yourself in this system it haunts you,” East Baton Rouge Parish Chief Public Defender Mike Mitchell said at the event on Saturday. “It sticks with you. And it can prevent you from actually getting your life together.”
While some criminal cases can never be expunged, many others can. These include cases that weren't prosecuted or were dismissed, many misdemeanor convictions after five years and many felony convictions after 10 years. Sex offenses and violent crime cases are among those that can’t be expunged.
Many of those who have shown up at BREES events are trying to get expungements for such crimes as burglaries, disturbing the peace or marijuana offenses, Mitchell said. While not all of those who went through the process had cases eligible for expungement, the volunteers were able to help more often than not, Mitchell said.
The process of having an entry expunged from a criminal record requires that a person understand the many steps they need to take or hire a lawyer, which could cost $800 to $1,500, Mitchell said.
BREES includes volunteers from the offices of the public defender, district attorney, city prosecutor, and the clerks for both the 19th Judicial District Court and the Baton Rouge City Court.
Before Hillar Moore III became East Baton Rouge Parish's district attorney, he handled many expungement cases during his 16 year career as a criminal defense lawyer. He said the process is arduous, even for an attorney, because the laws tend to change every year, he said.
“It would be really confusing and frustrating and I found that a lot of times people just didn’t want to do it for those reasons,” Moore said.
Outside of the BREES program, Clerk of Court criminal records supervisor Donny Caldera estimated that there are between 800 and 1,000 expungements a year in the parish. All cases start and end with the Clerk of Court’s Office.
Diandre Watford, 33, started the expungement process with an attorney, but turned to BREES after hearing through a friend that he might be able to save some money that way.
He had shown up to the May event, but it was packed so he came back on Saturday to try again. He sat in a waiting room for his name to be called with several other people.
Watford, a store manager at the time, was arrested three years ago after a confrontation with a woman at the store who he believed had been shoplifting, along with two other people, according to court documents. She reported him to law enforcement, leading to his arrest, but the case was later dismissed. He could have his expungement fees waived in the case because of the dismissal.
“I have a whole lot of life ahead of me and I don’t need anything holding me back,” said Watford, who studied business at Tuskegee University in Alabama and now works in sales in Baton Rouge. “This is just one of these opportunities to get a second chance.”
Hundreds of people like Watford showed up to the first event in October alone, signaling to the officials running the program that it was going to be successful, Moore said.
Months later, Moore doesn’t see an end in sight for BREES and actually wants to expand the services by creating and handing out packets with expungement instructions to people as soon as their case is dismissed.
For Moore, the project has been an eye-opening experience of hearing people’s stories and putting himself in their shoes. He was especially moved by the case of an elderly man who stopped by earlier this year.
“An 82 year old came in wanting to expunge his record for something that happened 40 years ago,” Moore said. “He said ‘I just want to be able to die and have a clean record.’ Things like that are important to people and their children to say they have a clean record.”