FIU and Florida Justice Center Open Doors by Sealing and Expunging Criminal Records

Elise Gregg/ Staff Writer

Having a criminal record – no matter how minor – can impact a variety of important areas of life. The Florida Justice Center is working to decrease the amount of Floridians impacted by a criminal record. 

The FLJC announced on Mar. 2 that they will provide free attorney services to qualified individuals to seal or expunge criminal records, with FIU law and undergraduate students partnering with them to do so. 

Alex Saiz director of legal services at the FLJC

Sealing or expunging a criminal record means the public is unable to access it, although some governmental or related groups can. Expungement adds to this, meaning any entities that could access a sealed record would not be able to without a court order. 

“The idea that you could be arrested for something you never did, and have to explain that [to] every community you deal with for the rest of your life is something that I think we can all understand, and all want to do something about,” said Alex Saiz, director of legal services at the FLJC. 

The FLJC is a non-profit organization which provides criminal legal services with the mission of reducing the number of incarcerated people in Florida. As of now their goal is to seal or expunge 400 records, and FIU undergraduate and law students are helping. 

Melba Pearson, director of the FIU Center for the Administration of Justice and vice chairperson of the FLJC’s board of directors is one of the supervising attorneys of the program. She explained the partnership is between the FLJC and the FIU law externship program. Students are able to earn credit from it, or use it as a resume building experience. 

Pearson described the impact of a criminal record, and how sealing or expungement can help. 

Melba Pearson director of the FIU Center for the Administration of Justice and vice chairperson FLJC board of directors

“If you’re someone who has a criminal conviction, you may not be eligible for student loans…it can also prohibit you from living in public housing…and it certainly affects you when you try to apply for a job,” said Pearson. 

Even in cases where charges were dropped or the case was resolved without a trial, charges stay on record.

“People think that because they didn’t have to go to jail or didn’t have to pay a fine, they’re good to go,” said Cris Liverpool, a second-year law student at FIU. “[And] they’re trying to apply for a job later on, they don’t get the job and they’re wondering why, and it’s because it came up in their background.”

As of now, none of the records have made it through the full process, as it can take up to a year depending how long it takes the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review each submission. However, Pearson explained that even though it may take a long time, the benefits of going through with it are significant.

“It does open up the ability for you to be able to apply to more jobs, and maybe even get a promotion where you are, maybe you’re being held back because of the fact you have a criminal history,” Pearson said. “So that’s why sealing or expunging your record can really have these real world benefits of being able to…build a better future for yourself…and most importantly, to stay out of the revolving door of the criminal justice system, ideally.”

While the program had to go virtual due to the pandemic, this made it more accessible to both clients and volunteers – and more desirable to participate in. 

“Now that we’ve really started to capitalize on the use of video conferencing and other technology, we realized we can still do that work, without having to bring everybody together into a physical location,” said Pearson,  “and as long as we have that open line of communication with different prosecutor’s offices and service providers, we can then provide referrals, as well as help expedite the process by [filling] out some of the main parts [of paperwork].” 

Having a virtual initiative makes it easier for attorneys and clients to fill out paperwork and quickly send it where it needs to go, and it makes the process as a whole more accessible to clients who may not otherwise be able to due to lack of transportation or time according to Pearson.

“We do feel like you can lose a little bit of good interaction, but in reality, it allows us to do things like reach out to vast communities that would be otherwise cost prohibitive for travel reasons,” said Saiz. 

Online work has also been key to increasing student engagement with the FLJC.

“Folks were definitely reluctant to go to any in-person type of internship or externship,” Pearson said. “So the fact that this was virtual was very appealing to a lot of the students, and it’s easy for us to because it’s easy to manage.” 

Students are able to work doing almost everything that attorneys do in sealing and expungement, from reaching out to clients to doing the paperwork and research needed to complete the process. 

“We meet every Tuesday, and I’ve seen them go from researching databases, compiling lists of arrests, compiling lists from clerks of courts, having contact with state attorneys, clerks courthouses, agencies, I mean, the list goes on [and] it’s a lot of research,” said FLJC chairperson and Tampa attorney Jessenia Rosales. 

Jessenia Rosales FLJC Chairperson and Tampa attorney

With students and attorneys working closely together, both FIU students and the FLJC benefit from the law clinic. 

“Every time we meet, our virtual classes are passionate about the work they’re doing,” said Saiz. “They don’t want to talk to five clients, they want to talk to ten clients; they don’t want to review the criminal records from one county, they want to review the criminal records from 15 counties.”

For Liverpool, the FLJC has not only been a positive place to work: she’s picked up on what she considers practical, real-world knowledge. 

“A lot of attorneys don’t normally know what the sealing or expungement process looks like themselves,” said Liverpool. “This is something that’s definitely going to be great…when I’m looking for a job.” 

Vanessa Rolle, a junior majoring in criminal justice, added working with clients has been a good experience as well. 

“Every single client that I’ve contacted I let them know that I’m a student and they actually appreciate students getting involved,” Rolle said. “They have been super respectful, whatever information we need from them they give it to us.” 

As the FLJC works towards its goal of sealing or expunging 400 records, it’s looking at changing some aspects of the program and keeping others.

“Our hope is that as long as the court system has Zoom, we think that [the virtual program] is something we’re going to be able to do,” said Saiz.

While some of the program may remain virtual, Saiz added that they are also trying to branch out in some ways. 

“One thing we’re trying to do is we are trying to create more localized law clinics,” said Saiz, adding that the FLJC is looking to create more localized clinics in general, but would like to increase their partnership with FIU if possible.

Saiz also said that they would like to expand over the state to areas with limited legal services, particularly to Broward and possibly Hillsborough counties, with the only limit being the capacity and resources to handle all incoming cases.

“We’re going to try and see about expanding this to other communities, particularly communities that we feel there is an absolute lack of access to the legal division, and then we’re trying to see if possibly we can expand this program to include other issues, for example of working in voter rights restoration or…driver’s license issues,” Saiz said. 

Saiz added that for the FLJC, donating and volunteering are some of the most helpful things people can do to help the program. 

“Because we have a variety of our projects, we have plenty of opportunities for people to come in,” said Saiz. “If it’s weekends, weekdays, remotely, we’re trying to match what you can give for what we need.”

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