by Agness Lungu
June 24, 2021
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, one in three adult Americans has a criminal record. Because of criminal background checks, a person who has been arrested or spent any time in jail may find it difficult to buy a house, rent an apartment, or get a job.
No job and no housing, in turn, increases the likelihood that someone with a record will be more likely to reenter the criminal justice system.
But a criminal record does not always have to be a barrier to a full and productive life. Under certain circumstances, Indiana law allows citizens to get an expungement order, which clears their criminal record. It’s a relatively straightforward process for an attorney, but for someone not familiar with the process, it can be complicated, confusing, and expensive.
That’s where the Bloomington Expungement Help Desk comes in. It opened in January 2020 to provide free legal help to those who are entitled to an expungement under Indiana law. The help desk is run by attorneys with Indiana Legal Services, Inc., a nonprofit law firm that is the largest provider of free legal services to low-income Hoosiers throughout the state. New Leaf, New Life, a nonprofit organization that helps those who have been incarcerated return to full lives, also provides support. But the help desk wouldn’t exist without the hard work of four enterprising IU Maurer School of Law students who had a vision on how to make a difference.
Jessica Beheydt, an attorney and Skadden Fellow with Indiana Legal Services, is one of four founders of the project, which took almost three years to launch. Along with three of her classmates—David Medley, Ingrid Barce, and Natalie Fiacco— Beheydt spearheaded efforts to begin the help desk when they were still students at the Maurer School of Law.
The hard work has been worth it. Beheydt describes her job with the expungement desk as fulfilling and serving a critical community need.
“My job is putting smiles on people’s faces, and I love that. In Indiana it is perfectly legal to discriminate against someone based on their criminal record,” she said. “If you have a misdemeanor—possession of marijuana for example—people can deny you employment or not give you an apartment. For me, my job is giving those freedoms back.”
The stigma associated with a criminal record is very real. Beheydt noted that in Indiana, you can easily look up a person’s criminal history online, which is why the expungement process is so important. “Some of my clients are embarrassed by their online records that anyone can see, and I try to reassure them that they are not bad people and that we’re here to help,” she said.
The help desk has seen tremendous success in a short period of time, making a difference in the lives of many, even during the pandemic. In the past year alone, the desk has worked on 168 cases, 99 of which were expungement cases, and they were all granted. The desk has helped individuals in 38 counties in Indiana. That’s impressive given that an expungement often takes several months.
“The process of dealing with an expungement case after we have gathered all the information takes between three and six months. The longest case I ever worked on was about six months,” said Beheydt.
One reason why the expungement help desk has filled such a critical need is that without attorney assistance, it’s hard to know the ins and outs of Indiana’s expungement laws. The result is that Hoosiers don’t get the help that the law intended. As one example of the complexity, an Indiana citizen is eligible to petition to expunge their criminal record of all state offenses only once in their lifetime. It is therefore important that a client seek to expunge all convictions at the same time.
“You can get as many convictions as you need to expunge,” Beheydt explained. “If you have 20 convictions and they are all eligible, we can get all of those expunged. The only catch is that you can only petition for an expungement once in your life.”
Even with all its success, there’s more to be done, and the help desk is unable to help everyone who is deserving. Indiana Legal Services is limited under federal law to helping only low-income individuals. If the person seeking an expungement is not eligible, the help desk will refer them to private firms and other services that can assist.
The project is housed within Indiana Legal Services with great support from the Maurer School of Law. The desk is run by student volunteers from the law school, who meet with potential clients seeking an expungement, determine eligibility, and help refer cases to Indiana Legal Services. It’s just one of a wide range of pro bono projects, practicums, and clinical programs run by the law school, where students and faculty help low-income Hoosiers with their legal needs. Each year, hundreds of students volunteer thousands of hours providing free legal assistance, while providing students tremendous opportunities to learn how to be effective lawyers.
Jessica says she looks forward to seeing the desk grow. “My hope is that we can continue to bring on more students and to find more creative ways to help as many Hoosiers as possible.” she said.
Information about Indiana Legal Services can be found on their website. One can apply for assistance directly from the website or by calling the telephone numbers listed.
Agness Lungu is a student in Indiana University's Wells Scholars program and wrote this article as a guest columnist for the Maurer School of Law.