A diaconal tool: Expungement helps laggards, shares basic gospel idea

Criminal records are a scourge among black job applicants who often are held back by convictions that can be legally erased. This man, 23, was arrested July 13 on two charges of failure to appear, according to an East Tennessee mugshots website.

Eric Jones, a gospel minister, and I are engaged in a chat as we await the repair of our cars at S&S Auto in Brainerd. Rev. Jones serves Christian Fellowship on 37th Street in Chattanooga in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America.

He and fellow ministers have a big concern for members who have criminal records that keep them from getting employment. It’s hard for a man who is trying to go straight and lead a good life to have a criminal record, he says. It’s a form of temptation, pushing him into his old ways and toward former evil companions he’d best forget about.

I run by Rev. Jones an idea that has percolated in my mind for several years. It’s about whether deacons could prove useful to church members by assisting with a legal remedy for a criminal record, a remedy that mirrors the forgiveness that God pours upon repentant sinners.

Remedy works better if rap sheet short

I was in Hixson Wal-Mart on May 18 when my cell phone buzzed. A woman told me the sad story of her son, who in two hours was going on trial for drug possession. Supported with money from friends, he had hired a lawyer. Mrs. D asked if there was anything I could do to help. I told her I am a deacon, not a lawyer, but that I had talked with the Rev. Jones about the expungement process and my interest in the remedy’s promise as a practical tool and a form of Christian outreach.

I asked about Mr. D’s case, and what sort of prior convictions he had. Might he be a good candidate for such process?

Expungement, I explained, is the procedure in which a criminal record is wiped clean. Certain offenses can be deleted from the public record. If one has a crime expunged, I told her, one can truthfully say on a job application that the record is clear. If he had one crime on his record, and that crime was expunged, I said, he could truthfully answer that he had not been convicted.

Later in the day I called her back. The jury convicted her son. The sentence was jail, but he was free because he had spent the time prior to trial in jail, unable to afford a bond. The man is not a good candidate for expungement, I told Mrs. D, because he has more than one blotch on his record. A man with six offenses may have one of them deleted, but that would seem hardly much benefit, given the cost and the trouble of the process.

Could expungement bring black and white churches together in a common project, with the main beneficiary being young jobless men with criminal pasts? A diaconal service offering expungement processing would allow officers of the church to help a man under judgment of man’s law and give him a means of separating him from his past. If the man seeking this help is not a Christian, he can be assisted practically while being reminded repeatedly that there is eternal life and forgiveness before God if he repents of his sins and calls on the name of Jesus Christ for salvation.

Expungement costs a bit — F$350. That money would have to be raised, with the deacons learning the protocol, doing the hand-holding and providing spiritual encouragement.

Expungement in nutshell

Expungement law in Tennessee changed July 1 to strengthen the process in favor of defendants and to simplify the process. Previously, a person could petition for expungement of the record if the charge was dismissed, the grand jury gave a no true bill, or the person was seized and released without charge. Now, convictions can be erased.

“The person seeking the expungement must meet certain requirements, and not all offenses are eligible,” writes attorney Stevie Phillips with the Davis & Hoss law firm at Chattanoogan.com. “A person may not seek expungement if she has been convicted of any other offense at any time. In addition, at least five years must have elapsed since the person seeking expungement fulfilled the requirements of her sentence. Finally, the conviction is not eligible for expungement if the sentence imposed was a term of more than three years imprisonment.”

Among other requirements: The crime cannot have been one of violence, cannot be a sex offense requiring one to register and did not cause the victim more than F$25,000 in losses. The statute at TCA 40-32-101 imposes other restrictions. An expunged record becomes invisible to the public, but is accessible to officials, attorneys and judges if the person is involved in another case.

Parameters resemble those of Christ’s forgiveness

As I was hastening to assemble today’s post, I could not help think about how Christ has forgiven me of my sins and washed me as white as snow.

The concept of forgiveness by the blood of Christ hit me with special force a few minutes ago when I read what the General Assembly intends with the new law and what generally is expressed in the doctrine of expungement.

[S]uch an expungement has the legal effect of restoring the petitioner, in the contemplation of the law, to the same status occupied before the arrest, indictment, information, trial and conviction. Once the expungement order is granted and the petitioner pays the fee required by this subsection, no direct or indirect collateral consequences that are generally or specifically attendant to the petitioner’s conviction by any provision of law shall be imposed or continued. A petitioner with respect to whom an order has been granted under this amendment will not be guilty of perjury or otherwise giving a false statement by reason of the person’s failure to recite or acknowledge the arrest, indictment, information, trial or conviction in response to any inquiry made of the petitioner for any purpose.” [Italics added]

In other words, you are not committing perjury if you deny you were convicted of a crime that you have had expunged. Under the law, you are telling the truth that, no, you have no criminal record.

This point is beautiful, and the bill summary belabors it most pleasingly:

Expungement under this amendment means, in contemplation of law, the conviction for the expunged offense never occurred and the person shall not suffer any adverse affects or direct disabilities by virtue of the criminal offense that was expunged. A petitioner whose petition is granted pursuant to this amendment, and who is otherwise eligible under state or federal law to possess a firearm, will be eligible to purchase a firearm and apply for and be granted a handgun carry permit. *** [italics added]

To the Christian, the idea of a conviction that “never occurred” is sweet, like the singing of a psalm. God the Father hates sin and condemns sinners who refuse to bow the knee. Like you, I am a sinner. This malefactor will be allowed to come to the bar of justice and be found free of any imperfection by the perfectly obedient life and loving sacrifice unto death of Christ — for me. This rebel will appear before God with Christ’s holiness judicially applied to me as if I had never sinned. I will be declared not guilty, though the real record of my life is one of folly, concupiscence, vice, vanity and offense. Because of Christ’s bonds on my behalf, I am made forensically clean.

Cleansing the fallen man

The most apt biblical idea of expungement is that of washing.

“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin,” David says in Psalm 51:2. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (v. 7). Paul uses the idea of washing to describe the gift of God to the sinner. “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 6:11). Christ in John 13 talks to the disciples about about washing each other’s feet to denote a spirit of service.

Yes, expungement differs from Christian forgiveness. It is a blotting out of a record of transgression, though the history and fact of the transgression remains. Expungement is about record keeping, not real guilt. Expungement isn’t ethical or moral forgiveness, as Christ gives to His people. But it is very similar in the grace it extends.

Stevie Phillips, attorney

Last Lord’s day I handed a widowed mom of four boys visiting the Tulis family my tattered copy of the “First Catechism” that my children recited starting at age 3. Here’s how the idea of expungement is given, in Question 53. “How can God justify you?” The answer is simple, and legally accurate. “By forgiving all my sins, and declaring me to be righteous.” Forgiveness is God’s declaring His children righteous. What He declares, is. When He speaks, sun and moon appear and oceans fill their basins.

Expungement is the civil magistrate’s declaring offenders cleared. They are not called “innocent” or “not guilty.” Rather, their guilt is cast as far as east is from west, and no further mention of their offenses made.

I believe a wealthy white church could help a poor black church start such a program. It would need funding, college or law school students to organize over a summer, and an outreach program among people most likely to need this sort of help.


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