Having a felony conviction on your record can make it difficult to find employment and housing, which contributes to higher rates of recidivism.
The process to get a record expunged can be difficult to navigate. Organizations such as Georgia Justice Project offer free record expungement legal services for people with a criminal conviction.
GJP staff attorney Tiffany Gordon says getting a record expunged can help her clients improve their overall quality of life.
“A lot of what we see are people who have employment issues, who haven’t been able to get a job because of having a felony on their record, having issues with housing, not being able to get an occupational license as a result of having a felony on their record,” Gordon said.
We spoke to Gordon and GJP pro bono coordinator Erin Donohue-Koehler to help you make sense of the steps and what to expect from the process.
Where do I start?
In the state of Georgia, getting a record of your felony conviction expunged is a two-step process.
The first step is getting a pardon, which is granted by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. The full pardon process can take the board anywhere from six to nine months — depending on their caseload — while they verify the information in your application and confirm your eligibility.
A pardon is an official order of forgiveness by the state. Even with the pardon, however, your felony conviction will remain part of the public record.
The second step is getting the record of your conviction restricted and sealed. When this is completed, private background check companies often used by landlords and employers will no longer be able to retrieve a record of the conviction. Records that have been restricted and sealed, however, will still be accessible to judges and law enforcement.
Are you eligible for a pardon?
In order to get a general pardon, you must be five years off paper. This means it’s been five years since you have been incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. For a registered sex offender pardon, you must be 10 years off paper.
You cannot have any open legal cases or pending charges. Similarly, in the five years prior to applying for a pardon, you must have lived a law-abiding life, meaning you haven’t had any other criminal convictions.
What happens after I send my application in?
Before you can be granted a pardon, you will be interviewed by a caseworker from the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Oftentimes they will try to schedule the interview at your home.
This will happen after your application is processed and your eligibility is confirmed. Eligibility is not a guarantee that you will be pardoned, and your meeting with the caseworker will be factored into the board’s decision whether to grant the pardon.
“For a lot of our clients, thinking back to this time in their lives really can be almost retraumatizing, because this likely was a very traumatic time for them. And so it can be really challenging to answer the questions honestly, and in a way that’s going to make your application persuasive. Unfortunately, this is not the time to dispute the facts as alleged by the state,” said Donohue-Koehler.
While your conviction will be the topic of discussion, your guilt or innocence has no impact on your pardon.
This is the same body that oversees parole hearings, and Donohue-Koehler said they are looking for applicants to take responsibility for their actions and show rehabilitation.
“Try and stick to the facts as much as possible, and try to keep your answers short and answer the questions that they’re asking,” she said.
How do I get my record restricted and sealed?
This is a two-step process that you can apply for after receiving your pardon. Restriction refers to the official Georgia criminal history report the state maintains in the Georgia Crime Information Center. Sealing refers to the court records of your case.
Restriction and sealing means your criminal records will no longer be public record. This means private background check companies, most often used by employers, will not be able to see your criminal record. However, restriction and sealing does not prevent law enforcement or a judge from viewing your record.
Not all felonies are eligible for restriction and sealing. The convictions not eligible are: murder/felony murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated assault with intent to rape, false imprisonment (victim under 14 and not your child), sodomy, statutory rape, and child molestation.
There are some exceptions.
For instance, your record can be vacated and then restricted and sealed if your conviction was a direct result of human, sex, or labor trafficking. Even if your conviction was not a direct result of trafficking but happened while you were being trafficked, you can petition the court to have the record restricted and sealed.
Who makes the final decision?
The State Board of Pardons and Paroles is a five-person body appointed by the governor. They make all decisions regarding pardons and record restriction and sealing. If you are denied a pardon for a reason not related to eligibility, you can reapply in two years.
“If the board denies somebody’s pardon who meets all the criteria, they don’t give a reason why,” Donohue-Koehler said. “If they qualify and they’re denied, the only thing we know to tell them is that you can reapply again after two years.”
One thing to keep in mind is the First Offender Act.
People who plead guilty or receive a guilty verdict can ask the judge to sentence them under the First Offender Act. This means that once they have completed their sentence, the charges are automatically sealed by the court.
If you did not know about the First Offender Act at the time of your sentencing, you can retroactively apply and have your charges sealed by the court.
There are certain convictions that are not eligible for first offender status, including DUI and charges relating to trafficking, neglect of disabled or elderly people, child pornography, and serious violent or sexual offenses.
What are the benefits?
Oftentimes, employers are hesitant to hire people with a felony conviction because they fear an increased legal liability if something happens on the job. However, employers are protected from any additional liability if you have been granted a pardon.
With a pardon, you are automatically granted a restoration of civil and political rights, meaning you can run for public office, sit on a jury, and become a notary public. You can apply to have a restoration of firearms rights included in your pardon; if it is not explicitly included in your pardon, you will have to apply for this separately.
Georgia law also states that a business or professional license can be denied or revoked from any person that has been convicted of a felony.
How can you get help?
On the first Friday of each month, GJP hosts a virtual Criminal Records Clinic from 10 to 11:30 a.m.
In order to apply for legal services from GJP, you must register and attend one free Friday clinic. They will begin accepting new applications on Monday, Jan 2, 2023.
For questions regarding the program, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or (404) 827-0027, ext. 238