By Mike Kaszuba
When criminal prosecutors, led by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, began a “Help Seal My Record” project last year to enable people to seal their convictions for low-level crimes, thousands raced to file applications.
On the first day of the program alone – Oct. 1, 2020 – 307 applications were received after an online portal was unveiled by the state attorney general’s office. Another 328 applications arrived the next day, Oct. 2. It was a “landslide right away,” David Voigt, a state deputy attorney general, said of the applications. “Every day, that spread sheet would change.”
But documents obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a non-profit based in Saint Paul, show that relatively few records have been expunged – or sealed – during the program’s first year. Of the 307 applications filed on the program’s first day, as few as 14 were expunged, according to records provided to PRM by the state attorney general’s office. (PRM redacted the names of individuals with convictions who applied to the new program).
In a letter to PRM on Sept. 23 of this year, the state attorney general’s office said 2,402 online requests had been received since the program began a year ago. Of that total, district courts across Minnesota had granted 108 of the requests.
Much of the program’s data however remains non-public. A spread sheet provided by the state attorney general’s office, for example, simply showed a black line drawn through those requests that were granted, meaning the name of the person and the offense are not being made public. In addition, a black line drawn across a person’s name could mean that more than one conviction for that person was expunged, Voigt said.
The process for considering whether to seal a record is likewise generally out of the public view. When an application is filed, a county attorney or city attorney who prosecuted the case is asked whether they agree to seal a record. If they agree, the application is then filed with a local district court which issues an order to expunge. Few of the applications that have reached a district court have been denied, Voigt said.
“We can’t tell you anything about [a conviction that was expunged] because we were ordered to seal our records,” Voigt added.
He said almost all of the applications were being filed by individuals, and not by attorneys representing them. (The new statewide program does not require a filing fee.)
In addition, the program does not promise that a person’s criminal record will completely disappear, even after being sealed. While a sealed record is not available to the public, it can still be viewed by a court, prosecutors and law enforcement officials as part of other investigations, sentencing and probation. State agencies can also access a sealed record if a person applies for certain jobs or job-related licenses.
Sealed records, according to the program, can also be used to enhance the penalty if a person commits a new, related offense.
“Holy buckets, that’s huge!”
On the statewide program’s first day, officials said they were surprised by the initial number of applications. “Holy buckets, that’s huge!” Dennis Gerhardstein, a Ramsey County Attorney’s Office official, wrote after being told that 55 applications had been filed in just the four hours after a press conference announcing the statewide program on Oct. 1, 2020.
Ramsey County and Washington County, which had their own, early versions of the Help Seal My Records program, had consulted with the state attorney general’s office in mid-2020 on how to set up a statewide program that the public could access through a state computer website.
The two counties, in an early beta test with the help of the Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, reported that contacting people by U.S. mail who might qualify to have their criminal records sealed had proven difficult. According to documents obtained by PRM, more than 2,000 letters were mailed in the early test to people who had been convicted in drug and theft cases between 2006 and 2008.
Just 91 people responded to the letters, the documents showed. Of those, 65 qualified for expungement.
The counties said the low response rates may have been due to using the U.S. mail. “Who even reads mail?” a Power Point presentation assessing the results of the outreach stated. Officials also said many of those who qualified might not know what the word “expungement” actually means.
“I know exactly what ‘Expungement’ means!” Said no one ever,” one comment in the Power Point assessment stated.
Applications drop off, few expungements
Though the initial response to the statewide program was significant, the numbers soon dropped off.
By January of this year, the number of applications had in fact dropped significantly. While more than 300 applications were made on the program’s first day, 115 applications were made during the entire month of January – and none of the 115 requests were granted.
Of the 115 applications filed in January, at least 21 were had been charged with fifth degree drug possession or sale.
The same pattern could be seen during the initial three hours after the first application arrived on Oct. 1, 2020.
Of the 89 applications received during that time, at least 20 involved a theft charge. At least nine involved a charge of fifth degree drug possession or sale.
The state attorney general’s office, in conjunction with prosecutors from several Minnesota counties, announced the program last year as a way for people convicted of low-level crimes to put their past behind them.
FBI: One in three Americans has criminal record
“According to the FBI, nearly one in three adults in America has a criminal record,” a statement on the state attorney general’s website began. “Long after people have atoned for the harm they caused and fulfilled their obligations to the justice system, criminal records and the collateral consequences that follow serve as barriers to jobs, housing, education and more, preventing people from serving as productive members of our community.
“Studies have shown very few people who are eligible to seal their records successfully apply,” the statement added, “but among those whose records are sealed, very few commit new crimes and, on average, they experience a significant increase in wages and employment within the next two years.”
The most common convictions eligible for being sealed under the program include theft, fifth degree drug possession or sale, receiving stolen property, forgery crimes, financial transaction card fraud and mail theft.
People convicted of lower-level felony offenses can also have their records sealed under the program – provided the person has not been convicted of a new offense in at least five years.
The list of felony offenses eligible under the program include the willful evasion of a fuel tax, escape from a civil commitment for a mental illness, transferring a pistol to a minor and voting violations. Others include leaving the state to avoid establishment of paternity, altering a livestock certificate, bringing stolen goods into a state and aggravated forgery. Still others include tampering with a fire alarm, embezzlement of public funds involving $2,500 or less, interference with a cable communications system and assaulting or harming a police horse.
The program had high-profile supporters, including Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Mike Freeman, the county attorney in Hennepin County, Minnesota’s most populous county.
“We are pleased to do our part by helping eligible applicants seal their records,” Freeman said in a statement.
“Prosecutors are ministers of justice. That makes it our responsibility to ensure that those who have paid their debt to society are not forever burdened by the barriers a criminal record creates when accessing jobs, housing, education, and financial qualifications,” he added.