PLEASANTVILLE — An expungement seminar at Mount Zion Baptist Church Friday aims to educate city residents about how to get their records cleared of nonviolent crimes.
“We’re trying to target those individuals that are coming out of corrections and starting their lives over,” said Ernestine Smith, vice chairwoman of the Coalition for a Safe Community, one of the coordinators of the event and a parishioner at the church. “We wanted to be able to give our community a second chance to evolve. We all want a second chance, and we all want better.”
The event, at 352 S. New Road from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., will include seminars that go over what types of records can be expunged, what to expect if a person is representing him or herself, how to file for an expungement and what happens at an expungement hearing.
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There’s a need in the community for the seminar, Smith said, because residents come out of the corrections system and have trouble getting housing, a job or going to school because of their convictions.
“Imagine the worst thing you have ever done. Now imagine having to write this incident down every time you apply for a job, apply for a mortgage, apply for housing, apply to be a volunteer,” said Jill Houck, operations division manager for the Atlantic/Cape May vicinage. “This is what someone with a criminal conviction must do. An expungement allows someone to move on from the mistake they made by shielding their conviction from public view.”
There are seven steps to obtain an expungement, Houck said. The first step is to determine eligibility, because some serious offenses, like homicide, robbery, kidnapping, sexual assault and arson, cannot be expunged.
However, burglary, theft, assault, possession of drugs, some drug distribution offenses and municipal court convictions like simple assault, shoplifting, harassment and hindering can be expunged, Houck said.
From there, they must obtain their criminal records, fill out and file a petition for expungement, send that petition to agencies, submit proof of that to court, wait for a hearing date and then send an expungement order to all appropriate agencies.
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It can be a long, confusing process, and seminars like this help residents to navigate it.
“We’re just really intentional about offering people more opportunities,” Mount Zion Senior Pastor Willie Francois said. “It’s like a prison outside the prison, a bar-less, wall-less prison that is not allowing people to participate in the American economy, the American dream.”
Friday will be the third time the church is hosting the event, and the setting is intentional so residents feel safe and free from judgment.
“There is no shame connected to this, that you shouldn’t be afraid of being arrested if you have warrants,” Francois said. “We are a judgment-free space. You should not be living under a life sentence of shame because of a mistake you made.”
In addition to the seminars, community resources, such as South Jersey Legal Services, Jewish family Service, Hope One, the city housing authority and others, will share additional information.
The event is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is available. Call the Court User Resource Center at 609-402-0100, ext. 47220, or email Karen.Michael@njcourts.gov.