People with criminal convictions who are eligible to have those convictions vacated will get additional legal assistance to do so, thanks to a new post-conviction relief unit at the King County Department of Public Defense.
The department started its new unit this month, a pilot project funded by King County’s recently passed 2019-2020 operating budget. One paralegal and the equivalent of one full-time attorney will provide the legal help eligible clients need to get convictions vacated. The pilot project also provides funding to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to vacate convictions.
Under state law, many convictions can be vacated, provided enough time has passed. For certain non-violent Class B felonies, one can file a motion to vacate 10 years after completion of the sentence; for non-violent Class C felonies, the wait is five years, and for misdemeanors, three years.
Vacating a criminal record helps to end some of the collateral consequences of criminal legal system involvement. It means, for instance, that the person can state in job applications, housing applications and other forms that he or she has not been convicted of a crime. It also provides some protection in background checks.
“A criminal conviction is like a scarlet letter. It keeps someone entangled in the criminal legal system for years and years, long after they’ve completed their sentence,” said Anita Khandelwal, director of the Department of Public Defense (DPD).
“This kind of work is critical to equity and social justice,” she added. “A person who has completed a sentence should not be forced to carry that mark forever. An equitable and fair system is one that, at a minimum, allows a person to rebuild his or her life.”
DPD already provides some post-conviction work, but on a limited basis. The new unit will enable DPD to provide the service to many more people and to do so systematically, Khandelwal said. The department, for instance, will begin reaching out to people via community partners, social media, workshops and other avenues in an effort to let people know the service exists.
“We don’t know what the volume will be, but we know the need is great,” Khandelwal said.
The attorneys in the new unit will also help clients get their records expunged, which means removing an arrest record or criminal charge that was later dismissed. They can also help people get records sealed, a discretionary process that requires the individual to show his or her privacy needs outweigh the public interest in open access to the courts.
DPD provides high-quality legal advocacy in all areas of criminal law and some areas of civil law to people who cannot afford an attorney. The department employs attorneys, investigators, social workers, paralegals and administrators. In 2018, DPD represented nearly 20,000 individuals in courts throughout King County.
For information about DPD’s post-conviction unit, call the department at 206-296-7662.