Greg Willis remembers coming across one woman’s request for an expunction for a charge she’d received over 20 years ago.
It was from 1995, the same year Willis had become a prosecutor. The woman had been arrested and charged with a felony that was later dismissed.
“Whatever law enforcement agency it was probably had incomplete or erroneous information, and so I think it’s appropriate to say that ultimately it was a wrongful arrest, and the DA did the right thing by dismissing the charge,” Willis said. “But it was on her record, and so it no doubt affected her employment prospects, housing prospects, all these years.”
The woman was one of over 130 people who received an expunction in 2021 through an expunction initiative introduced by the Collin County District Attorney’s Office, which was run in partnership with the Collin County chapter of the NAACP.
The program provided free services to applicants who were eligible for an expunction, including those who were arrested but for whom a charge was not filed, those who had a criminal charge that was dismissed without a supervision or probation and for those who were acquitted or pardoned.
Most people don’t pursue getting an expunction, even if they have a legal right to, Willis said, which can impact them when it comes to getting a job or a home.
“It can be a beautiful thing if somebody gets an expunction,” Willis said. “It can make a big difference to their future.”
Both Willis and June Jenkins, Collin County NAACP president, see the first run of the program as a success.
“Everybody kind of came together and did their part, be it the DA and all of the people in his office, the attorneys from across the county volunteering their time and efforts and then the community stepping up, so we were very pleased,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said the NAACP became involved in the program as part of an effort to reduce how many people were arrested during traffic stops for outstanding warrants related to minor, nonviolent offenses.
“A lot of it’s just where they didn’t have the money to pay a ticket or something like that, and so a warrant is put out for their arrest or something like that where it was something nonviolent that occurred and the individual was not able to pay, and it resulted in a warrant being put out for their arrest, she said.
Jenkins said there had been hopes to help at least 50 people. However, of the 270 applications that came through, Willis said about 130 people received expunctions and about 164 charges were erased. That came with the help of around 48 volunteer attorneys in the area.
“We wanted to evaluate the success of (the program) before we made a commitment to do it in future years, but we’ve done that now,” Willis said. “It was, I think, wildly successful for our first one, and our community partners were fantastic.”
Looking ahead, Willis said he would love for the program to be a yearly event. He said the timeline for 2022 would be similar to the one laid out in 2021, which kicked off March 31 and allowed for applications to come in until April 30.
Jenkins said moving forward, she hopes to expand communication and education about the program and its benefits to the community. She also said she hopes there will eventually be a time where a diversion program to help those charged with non violent first-time offenses will be introduced to make the program unneeded.
“So my goal would be to continue to work to help those who have the nonviolent things on their record and expunge their records, but then to also eventually put into place or to expand the diversion program so that we don’t even have people going to jail for things that don’t require it,” she said.
For Willis, hopes for the future include having an in-person meeting point between applicants and volunteer attorneys, if public health conditions allow, as a way to bring out the human element of the program.
However, he said, if conditions mean more of an online platform is needed, the group has proven before that they can get the job done.