Libraries Help People Get Their Lives Back on Track
Many turn a new page with support from their local librarians.
Imagine you have something in your history you’re trying to move past. That could be anything from shoplifting to disorderly conduct to public intoxication. You’ve learned from your mistakes, moved on, and years later, and are trying to get a new job or a promotion or new housing. But again, you face rejection because of that years-old criminal record.
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You learn that there’s a process called expungement in which you can apply to the court to have those records sealed and unavailable for background checks. Good news, right? Except it turns out that the expungement process is so laborious and challenging that it can seem almost impossible. It means long, detailed forms where one small error can lead to a rejected application.
Libraries, as usual, to the rescue! Calvin Battles, adult services coordinator for the Jackson District Library in Jackson, MI, learned of the problem when studying issues around the hiring shortage. He thought the case would be the lack of a qualified workforce. But instead, he found people anxious to work and frustrated at every turn by the old criminal charges holding them back. He and his library began partnering with local legal services to assist in filing for and obtaining an expungement. The services they developed have been in massive demand from the beginning.
Don’t Let Your Past Hold You Back
Battles noted that one woman had repeatedly been held back from a promotion because of an old shoplifting charge. Once authorities expunged her record, the promotion went through. “She’s still as trustworthy as she was before,” he said. “She still works as hard as before. But for the powers that be, it can be a reason not to do something.”
Other libraries around the country have discovered the dire need for such help and have stepped up, partnering with local legal services. In Freeport, IL, the Freeport Public Library partners with Prairie State Legal Services to provide free legal advice for county residents, including help with an expungement. The New Castle County Library in Delaware recently offered a linked job fair and expungement clinic, partially sponsored by Amazon. Amazon had newly opened a distribution warehouse and needed to hire staff. Attendees could have a conference with a public defender who would review their records and provide recommendations.
Libraries Are An Ally
These partnerships are essential for libraries wanting to assist in expungement, as library workers can’t provide legal advice and guidance. But the library’s reach within its community can get the word out and connect people to the legal help they need more efficiently than legal services alone.
It’s not just public libraries offering assistance. Several law libraries do, including Olmsted County Law Library in Rochester, MN. The library provides expungement clinics several times yearly, focused on people who want to represent themselves in court. Volunteer lawyers meet those in need and walk them through the process. Other law libraries offer this as well, while some law libraries, such as the Santa Barbara Law Library, have online resources and staff available to help explain the process.
Battles have advice for libraries interested in helping those in need in their communities: Collaborate. “We would never have this service available to people if it hadn’t been for the collaboration of the United Way, the Jackson Community Foundation, the Michigan unemployment office, and Legal Services of Michigan.” Libraries have long been stellar collaborators, which is one example of why it works.