According to estimates compiled by the National Employment Law Project, nearly 65 million people in this country—roughly a quarter of the U.S. population—have been convicted of a criminal offense. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Justice Statistics says an average of 700,000 inmates will be released from federal and state prison each year, not counting the number of inmates expected to be released from local jails.

The ability to secure and maintain employment is a critical element of any ex-offender’s successful reintegration into society. However, Americans with criminal records encounter significant legal and social barriers that thwart their job searches and block employment opportunities. Many prospective employers have implemented blanket policies against hiring ex-offenders, regardless of the applicant’s age, the date of the offenses and/or evidence of rehabilitation.

Recognizing that this growing number of unemployable workers threatens the health of the economy, and that providing opportunities for stable employment lowers recidivism and increases public safety, many states, including California, have implemented policies that help qualified people with criminal records compete more fairly in the job market. Among these policies is the availability of an expungement.

An expungement allows an ex-offender who meets certain conditions to open his or her criminal case, set aside the conviction, and dismiss the case.  After an expungement is obtained, the person’s record no longer shows the conviction, and he or she can lawfully answer “no” on a private employer’s job application when asked whether he or she has been convicted of a crime.

Understanding the critical role expungements can play in helping ex-offenders rebuild their lives, DWT’s Karen Henry guided and led the creation of the Fresh Start Expungement Clinic, which was held on two consecutive Saturdays in August at the Crossroads United Methodist Church in Compton, Calif., where Karen grew up. Karen enlisted her alma mater, Southwestern Law School, to recruit student volunteers who worked at the clinic. These students were trained and supervised by volunteer lawyers from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. The church and the city of Compton provided support and food. Nearly 100 individual petitions were handled at the event, with more than two dozen other people receiving counseling.

“This means so much for the participants,” said Karen. “To not have to be identified as a criminal marks an end to a difficult period in their life, and permits them to rejoin society. I am so proud of all the organizations that came together to provide this incredibly important service.”

In a formal letter thanking Karen for her role in organizing the clinic, the Honorable Aja Brown, mayor of Compton, wrote: “I am extremely grateful for the compassion you have for our community and your vision to assist our residents in removing barriers to employment.” She added: “Every detail was well thought out and it was evident that you were truly led by love to touch the lives of our community through service.”