It lingers for years like a scarlet letter, often with devastating consequences: a criminal record.
Legal experts offered tips and glimmers of hope Friday to those trying to have their criminal records expunged or cleared of some convictions, which can block housing, educational, and career choices.
An expungement for offenses such as disorderly persons or petty disorderly persons convictions, municipal ordinance convictions, and some drug offenses if the person is 21 or younger at the time of the crime could yield a clean slate.
“What does an expungement do? It makes it like it never happened,” said Camden County Assistant Prosecutor William Staas.
About 25 people attended the free public seminar in a lecture hall at Camden County College in Blackwood. They came from diverse backgrounds and included former offenders, parents seeking to have records expunged for their children, and employers who must screen out potential hires with criminal records.
Stacie Isler of Lindenwold left in tears after learning that her criminal records could not be expunged. She had two felony convictions in the 1980s and 1990s for theft by deception.
“You only get one bite at the apple,” said Isler, a retired nurse and mother of seven. “You just want your past to go away.”
During the two-hour seminar, Staas and other legal experts discussed the types of criminal and juvenile records that can be expunged. Staas meticulously reviewed the process for filing a petition for expungement, and urged the attendees to complete the required forms themselves and avoid legal fees that could reach thousands of dollars.
“Our job is not to put hurdles and make it impossible for you,” he told the audience. Staas did not address individual cases, and attendees spoke anonymously.
Other convictions that cannot be expunged include criminal homicide, kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, perjury, robbery, luring, or enticing.
In Camden County, about 30 expungement petitions are filed weekly, Staas said. Some must be amended several times to correct mistakes and ultimately are approved, he said. An expungement petition can be filed in Superior Court in the county where the arrest or conviction occurred. A judge must approve the order.
Offenders typically file for an expungement to obtain employment or security clearance or financial aid to attend college. Isler wanted her record expunged so she could qualify to live in an affordable-housing unit.
“When I was younger, I was just crazy,” one woman admitted. “I just want that to go away.”
A father said he was trying to clear his son’s record. The teenager “clocked” a teacher and was placed under house arrest.
Another father asked if he could file a petition for his 25-year-old son.
“You had better bring them with you,” Staas cautioned. “They’re adults.”
Debbie Mikiten, 50, of Cherry Hill, a branch manager at a home health agency, said she was unable to hire about 10 percent of applicants because they had criminal records. She hopes to share information from the expungement seminar with applicants.
“We have to turn people away,” Mikiten said. “I don’t think it’s fair that it holds them back. They could one day become nurses and doctors.”
Burlington County also will hold a free expungement workshop on Tuesday from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Burlington County Library, 5 Pioneer Blvd., Westampton. Mark Natale, a lawyer, and Alexis Agre, a Burlington County assistant prosecutor, will be the speakers. No registration is required.