Julie Mennel works at Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic as a paralegal for Project GRACE (Guided Re-Entry Assistance & Community Education), at times managing the Help Desk in the City County Building. Her position gives her a unique perspective on those members of our community with criminal histories who may have been forgotten or dismissed by others due to their pasts. Read more about her perspective in today’s blog post:
Imagine a place where individuals often in desperate situations can come and receive long-awaited answers to their questions and information that empowers them to put the past where it belongs—in the past. The Expungement Help Desk in G25 of the City County Building is such a place. Staffed primarily by volunteers, the Help Desk is a safe place where people can come, tell their stories without fear of judgment, and learn what their options are as far as expunging arrests and convictions that continue to haunt them. For many, time is of the essence. Because of something in their past criminal record, they are unable to find jobs to support their families, to pursue higher education, to adopt a child, to travel abroad, to receive much needed public assistance, or to rectify their immigration status. They are seeking the most expeditious and least costly way to put past mistakes behind them, not justify them. They want to pick up and move on for the sake of not only themselves, but for the sake of those who depend on them. In my experience at the Help Desk, those who need expungement are not all the same: men, women, young, old, rich, poor, white, black, Hispanic, educated, uneducated, people of faith, people without a faith connection. They are all different. But what they do have in common is a desire to build a future for themselves that is reflective of who they are today, rather than of their choices yesterday.
On any given day, I speak to twenty to forty individuals who come through the doors. We greet them, share information with them, and give them direction as to how to begin the process of moving forward. Gathering all of the necessary documentation can be overwhelming, but that investment of time and effort is an important part of restoring a piece of what has been lost: independence and self-worth.
As someone who works frequently at the Help Desk, I get the chance to sit with these forgotten members of our community, listening to their stories, and helping them to make sense out of the documents they’ve obtained. If eligible according to Indiana law, we provide the resources necessary to file for an expungement of their criminal records. If ineligible, we help them to understand their options and what needs to happen in order for them to become eligible. In either case, our visitors leave the Help Desk with something they did not previously have: information, a plan, and most importantly, hope. It is not unusual for our visitors to circle back to the Help Desk to share the news of their granted petitions and the second chance they feel they now have. These are some of the most beautiful moments I experience working at the Clinic. We strive to make the Help Desk a place where grace is extended, and the love of Christ is evident. It is a privilege to participate in what God is doing here. To Him be the glory!