Overwhelming stories flood 'Clear Your Record' expungement campaign in KC

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Here they came, bringing their hidden pain with them.

Tristin Stewart, a 29-year-old father from Harrisonville. Tamara Sigars, a 44-year-old cancer survivor from Kansas City. Brandi Wheeler, a 35-year-old new college graduate from Olathe.

And hundreds more, in person or online, all hoping to shed criminal records that have kept them shadowed far too long in their communities’ plain sight.

“That one mistake can hang over your head for so long,” Stewart said after he and some 140 other men and women filed into the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church Community Center April 27 to meet an army of volunteers who want to help clear their names.

The numbers of people — and their stories — are overwhelming the Clear Your Record effort led by the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, Code for KC and the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office.

Nearly 800 people with criminal histories in Missouri are now registered through the Clear Your Record website.

“I just want a second chance,” Stewart said.

He wants the world to accept him as the father whose life changed the moment he took his then-two-month-old son into his arms for the first time inside the walls of the Fulton, Mo., prison three years ago.

His son — “J.J.” — lifted his eyes and looked into his father’s face with mysterious wonder, “like he knew who I was,” Stewart said. “Then he buried his head in my chest and he slept in my arms.”

He held the child the entire time during that visit with his girlfriend. “For hours,” he said.

Tristin Stewart and “J.J.”

Tristin Stewart and “J.J.”

“I’m trying to change everything to be there for my son.”

Stewart is no longer the 21-year-old Stewart who was chasing a methamphetamine addiction, who stole a box of checks out of the trunk of a car and falsified desperate signatures.

He’s working, providing for his new family the best he can with the limited options available to him.

Stewart learned of the Clear Your Record effort through LINC and LINCWorks, which helps people find work and build careers.

LINCWorks is supporting the expungement crusade that began with a partnership between UMKC, Code for KC’s problem-solving “Brigade,” and the prosecutor’s office soon after new Missouri law expanded expungement opportunities in 2018.

“You are not the worst thing you’ve ever done,” UMKC law professor and Dean Emerita Ellen Suni told a team of volunteers as they prepped for the April 27 event.

“People will try to define you . . .” she said, “but you can take that back.”

It’s not easy. And many people who come in hopes of clearing their records are learning they do not qualify for relief under the new law.

Violent crimes, including Class A felonies, are not eligible. Neither are any crimes that required registration as a sex offender. And there are lesser crimes, like theft, still not allowed for expungement that Suni and team want added to the law.

There is a simple reason the volunteers are trying so hard to help these hundreds navigate the law, spare them onerous legal expenses and digitally speed up the process.

Because they believe Tamara Sigars is right.

The Kansas City woman battling back from cervical cancer shouldn’t have to keep paying for long-past misdemeanors and a non-violent felony conviction from more than 20 years ago.

Volunteer UMKC student Beth Beavers consults with Tamara Sigars at the Expungement Day event April 27

Volunteer UMKC student Beth Beavers consults with Tamara Sigars at the Expungement Day event April 27

Sigars was shaking a figurative fist at the world as she sat with UMKC law student Beth Beavers on Expungement Day, adding up all the missed jobs and denied housing while the student searched online for her criminal history.

She’s worked most of her life, Sigars said. She can drive delivery trucks or “anything with wheels” if she could get a break.

“I mean, come on,” she said. “Get your foot off my neck.”

Be patient, said Lawrence attorney and expungement event co-leader Scott Stockwell to the crowd that already filled the church center’s hall by 8 a.m. on Expungement Day.

“We’ve had over 600 sign up,” he said, “for a day where we thought we’d have maybe 25.”

In the work room behind him, UMKC undergraduate student Kylee Gomez was scrambling with other organizers to set up dozens of volunteers supporting 10 pro-bono attorneys.

Finally,” she thought to herself, seeing the crowd. “The message is getting out.

Gomez had teamed up with Suni, who a year ago turned a law technology and ethics class onto the idea of taking up the expungement cause.

Paul Barham, a member of the Code for KC coalition and a volunteer assisting Suni’s class, saw opportunity as well.

Federal and state criminal justice systems have been cracking under the logistical weight of overzealous drug prosecutions from the 1990s and ongoing stockpiling of mostly poor offenders with unpaid fines.

The changes in Missouri’s expungement law cracked a door that Suni wants to bust wide open.

“It’s time,” she said, “in light of our mass incarceration.”

The Kansas City chapter of the Code for America movement was already watching how the national organization was developing technology with prosecutor offices to help thousands of Californians wash away drug charges after the state legalized marijuana.

That’s the kind of thing Code for KC tries to do, said Aaron Deacon, managing director of the non-profit KC Digital Drive and LINC Commission member.

“We work on tricky problems,” he said.

So far, the tech experts are creating digitalized forms to help speed the process of entering and sorting the criminal history information that flows into the petitions that people must file to seek expungement.

Ideally, they’d like to create a process that helps people and their attorneys quickly analyze eligibility, complete petitions and then deliver them electronically to the inboxes of the appropriate courts, police agencies and prosecutor offices.

They could guide people through the confounding legal process with the ease of online tax filing programs that now speed customers through the IRS and dense state and federal tax codes.

Volunteers in the Clear Your Record effort prepare to see clients at the Expungement Day event April 27

Volunteers in the Clear Your Record effort prepare to see clients at the Expungement Day event April 27

The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office quickly joined in the expungement effort, eager to help the movement assist people who qualify to have their records cleared.

“There is a wonderful synergy” between the law school, the community and the courthouse, said Jackson County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kate Brubacher.

She has followed the volunteers in outreach efforts into Kansas City communities that have had “zero trust” with police and prosecutors because of so many negative experiences, she said.

The Clear Your Record campaign is generating “excitement,” she said, “showing ways the law can help you.”

For so much of the first year, Gomez said, she and other students working with UMKC staff saw a trickle of people responding to their search for people with records that could be expunged.

Now, taking stock two days after the April 27 event, Gomez added up the suddenly massive work ahead of the volunteers:

  • 790 total applications for expungement

  • 249 applications reviewed, 541 reviews pending

  • 139 in-person applicants on Expungement Day

”This reinforces that this matters,” she said. “People need our help.”

Brandi Wheeler poses with her father and stepmother at her graduation from UMKC in May 2015.

Brandi Wheeler poses with her father and stepmother at her graduation from UMKC in May 2015.

Yes, Brandi Wheeler agreed. She was first in line at Morning Star in pursuit of relief from her one criminal felony record in Clay County over a decade ago.

She has fought her way back, taking loans and relying on the help of family to go back to school.

It was supposed to be her bright day of hope — May 2015 — standing in her cap and gown with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from UMKC.

But the long-ago felony still blocks her from anything beyond $10- and $11-an-hour wages.

“I have struggled with jobs and wages and housing . . . one foot from being homeless,” she said.

“It’s so crazy,” she said. “I want to be that example. That there is hope. That you can become something for yourself.”

Meanwhile Stewart, Sigars and Wheeler take the jobs and whatever homes or apartments they can get.

The Code for KC brigade hacks away in pursuit of better technology.

And Suni and the expungement advocates prepare to take people’s stories back to lawmakers in hopes of opening more opportunities for people they believe have earned a reprieve from the law.

In Stewart’s case, the burglary may be expunge-able, but his forgery needs an expanded expungement law.

He’s tireless, though, getting work.

He watches for the right moment, he said, after an interview is off to a good start and he sees the excitement of the interviewer growing. A good impression has been made, and then, he has to ask:

“How do you feel about hiring felons?”

Then well-meaning employers often get that disappointed, “dammit,” look on their faces, he said.

They can get some jobs, but the responsibilities and pay are often too limited.

They watch now, by the hundreds, hoping the law and their communities will give them a new shot.

By Joe Robertson, LINC writer

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