Meetings will be held on expunging old criminal convictions

Meetings will be held on expunging old criminal convictions

This article originally appeared in the Bennington Banner.

By Jim Therrien, Banner/VTDigger

BENNINGTON — Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage, in cooperation with the Bennington County Sheriff's Department, is sponsoring an expungement assistance program to help people remove old criminal convictions from their records.

Marthage said the program was inspired by actual situations the office has encountered and made possible by the recent changes in Vermont laws. While old marijuana convictions have been in the news recently because of the deciminalization of the drug, she said it is important to realize that other types of convictions can be considered for expungement as well.

"The program is definitely not limited to marijuana convictions," Marthage said. "While I anticipate that my office will certainly receive requests for expungement assistance related to marijuana, it is interesting to note that the majority of inquiries about expungement in Bennington County have been for prior convictions that were not drug-related, such as retail theft."

"I have frequently supported expungement in specific cases where someone petitions the court, but it was a challenging process to complete without an attorney," Marthage said.

However, she said the Legislature has revised the expungement law and that, along with a new law decriminalizing marijuana, means a number of individuals now are eligible to have convictions removed from their criminal record.

Marthage recounted one situation which made her think about offering the expungement program. She said she met a man who had a substance abuse issue and made some mistakes when he was under 21. As a result, she said, he was convicted of a crime and this limited his life options. 

The had served his sentence, completed his treatment and did everything else the court ordered, Marthage said, and is now in his mid-30s and hasn't had a criminal conviction in more than 10 years. "He has children, works hard and has straightened his life around," she said, adding, "Vermont's Legislature has given him the chance for a fresh start."

Marthage currently is facing a challenge for another term in the Aug. 14 Democratic Primary, where she is opposed by attorney Arnold Gottlieb, of Dorset. The challenger contends that the state's attorney's office under Marthage maintains "a decades-old philosophy" that stresses an inflexible attitude on crime, resulting in too many people facing criminal charges and too few cases being diverted into alternative programs.

While not addressing that criticism directly this week, Marthage said in a media release: "My office has a duty to administer justice in the broadest sense possible. We help people get treatment for drug problems. We serve crime victims and children from dysfunctional homes. We protect our community from dangerous, violent individuals. And now, we are implementing the will of the Legislature by helping people who have made a mistake in the past and are now law-abiding have their criminal record expunged."

Marthage said her office successfully assists dozens of individuals every year with expungements and/or sealing of records motions in court. "The number has grown every year as folks become more aware that they may be eligible," she said. 

In some situations, she said, a person may only learn that they have a record when they apply for employment or educational programs. "Recently, I helped someone applying for nursing school that was informed of a shoplifting conviction from the 1990s that was causing a problem for her application," she said.

"If an individual is a witness or victim to a crime, the police are required to run a record check," Marthage said. "When I notice an old conviction that seems to qualify for expungement, I try to reach out and notify the person about applying for expungement or sealing." 

Marthage said he has worked with other state agencies and non-profit organizations in the county that are assisting clients, such as with employment placement and other services, and the expungement work of her office "takes away the barrier that a prior conviction often presents for that person. Expungement gives an opportunity for a clear record to those folks that may have committed a crime but who are certainly not criminals."

The Legislature, "and particularly Sen. Dick Sears," she said, "have worked hard to create these expungement laws that allow Vermonters to clear low-level prior convictions. My office has been a strong supporter of expungement, and works to inform individuals and the public of the expungement option and to assist them to make it happen."

The expungement program would not be possible without the cooperation of the Bennington County Sheriff's Department, she said, with the department providing a deputy sheriff during the sessions to help individuals gather the information they need to file a petition. 

Sheriff Chad Schmidt Schmidt said in a release: "The expungement petition form requires you identify your specific docket number, the date you were convicted, the crime that you were convicted of and the date you completed probation. My deputy sheriff will be there to help by providing this information to individuals who no longer have any record related to their conviction."

Informational sessions will be offered on June 20, from noon to 6 p.m., at the Community Library in Manchester, and from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on June 21 at the state office building in Bennington.