Ramsey and Washington County prosecutors have decided to help some of the people they have convicted to clean up their records and get a meaningful second chance.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and Washington County Attorney Pete Orput on Thursday unveiled their expungement program, which aims to help some former offenders seal records of their old convictions and public court files.

Even after people clear the criminal justice system, Choi said, "There is still a lingering impact — a punishment — because these records are still public. We should take active measures to wipe off that scarlet letter on their forehead."

The prosecutors were joined by Attorney General Keith Ellison and Ramsey County Chief Public Defender Jim Fleming, both of whom lauded the efforts.

"All of us should be trying to create a just society that has accountability and redemption," Ellison said.

Former offenders can apply for expungement through a new website: helpsealmyrecord.org.

Ramsey County and the Attorney General's office are hosting an expungement fair from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the High School for Recording Arts, 1166 University Av. W., St. Paul.

Orput said for many former offenders, convictions can come to "haunt them forever."

"Where is the path to redemption? Where is the path back?" he said.

The path that Choi and Orput are using is "expungement by prosecutor agreement," a device created by state law a few years ago. When prosecutors initiate the expungement, defendants are not required to file a petition or appear in court as required in the normal expungement process.

Expungements can seal old convictions as well as court cases ending in acquittal or dismissal. Choi and Orput said some of the most promising cases include low-level drug offenses and property crimes such as theft, but added that they will consider all expungement requests.

The county attorneys not only want to help former defendants who have changed their lives to expunge old convictions, they want to make the promise of expungement part of plea deals.

Tracking down eligibles

The biggest challenge so far has been tracking down former offenders and persuading them that prosecutors want to help them.

Work started this summer when office interns, partnering with the nonprofit Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, began contacting potentially eligible offenders.

The Ramsey County prosecutor's office attempted to connect with 1,745 former low-level drug offenders who may be eligible for expungement. The office is now working with about 60 of them.

Katherine Sublett, 60, has been convicted of theft and drug crimes, and served time at the women's prison in Shakopee. A decade ago, she stopped using drugs, escaped an abusive relationship, went to therapy and changed her life. She paid restitution for her crimes and became a certified peer recovery specialist working for a nonprofit in Winona, where she helped others in the criminal justice system change their lives like she did.

But those 30-year-old convictions continued to shadow her. After being rejected for an apartment because of her record, she filed and argued for expungements on her own, receiving them in Hennepin, Ramsey and Olmsted counties. She said the process is tedious and time-consuming.

"In all honesty it stops you from working, it stops you from having a safe place to live. It stops you from living," Sublett said.

Making an impact

The expungement project is part of a larger effort to recast and expand "the role of what a prosecutor is," Choi said.

Earlier this year, his office hired immigration lawyer Jorge Saavedra to consider the collateral consequences of prosecution, including the threat of deportation and its effect on educational, job and housing opportunities.

"We can no longer be passive about this," Choi said. "We have to take active measures."

Prosecutors said that offering assistance with expungements will pay dividends by helping offenders become productive citizens who work, bank, volunteer and generally contribute to society.

"They will pay their taxes and behave. That's exactly what I want from them," Orput said.

A recent study at the University of Michigan Law School found that those who get their records expunged have extremely low subsequent crime rates that compare well with the general population.

Those receiving an expungement also can see their wages go up by as much 25%. "What other program does that?" Choi said. "This can make a real impact on the wages for families."

Nonprofit lawyers who help people with expungements said they are pleased to have prosecutors join their efforts.

"If [prosecutors] decide they want to take on this issue, they can affect meaningful change in the quickest manner possible," said John Beutler, criminal expungement resource attorney for the nonprofit law firm Volunteer Lawyers Network.

'A game changer'

There were 2,800 petitions for expungement filed in Minnesota in 2017, Beutler said, citing state court data. The get-tough-on-crime tactics of the 1990s and early 2000s left a lot of people with rap sheets, he said.

That, along with digital records that can unearth decades-old convictions, has created problems for many.

"Interest in expungements is definitely going up," he said. "We just have more people who need expungements. There are more people with criminal records who have trouble getting jobs and housing."

A former offender generally must wait five years after completing probation before expunging a felony conviction. Then the expungement process can take eight months or longer.

When offenders initiate the process, they need to file a petition, serve documents to local prosecutors and law enforcement officials, and go before a judge.

Prosecutors and police can object to an expungement request, which they regularly do, Beutler said. Victims can object too.

Sublett said she hopes to start an expungement clinic in Winona, and she is pleased that Choi and Orput are assisting with expungements, especially including them as an option in plea deals.

"That is one of the best things that could happen. You talk about the crème de la crème of motivation, that's it," she said. "If people know they could qualify for expungement after doing the right thing — oh my goodness, that is a game changer."

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037