Dina, a resident of Brunswick, said teaching children with developmental disabilities has been a long-time passion. 

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She has 12 years of experience in special education. But when she applied for a position at a school this summer, she felt devastated when a criminal background check took her out of the running.

“It makes you feel like you’re unworthy of working with that type of population,” Dina, a first time offender, said. “It makes you feel like you’re labeled and stigmatized as ‘Oh, well, you’re a criminal’.”

That’s why she showed up on a warm afternoon last Saturday to an expungement clinic in the old Risley School in Brunswick. She agreed to describe her experience to The Current on the condition her last name isn’t used because her expungement is still in the works. 

Dina was among 150 people who registered for the clinic, the first of its kind in Glynn County, according to Brenda Smeeton, legal director of Atlanta-based Georgia Justice Project. Registration for the Brunswick clinic reached maximum capacity within one day of being announced.

The clinic’s goal is to jumpstart applications for Georgians who are seeking to restrict access and then seal their criminal records – a process known as “expungement.”

Smeeton said 4.5 million people “have a Georgia criminal history,” almost 40% of working age adults. A criminal record for something minor, or even a charge that’s been dismissed, can act as a permanent obstacle for someone seeking a job and housing, Smeeton said. 

Risley School Brunswick GA
The historic Risley School in Brunswick off of Albany Street was the city’s first school for African-Americans and opened in 1870. The school no longer educates children but may be the site of a future “justice center,” according to local advocates. Credit: Erika Curtis/Georgia Justice Project

“It doesn’t make sense that your past should continue to stay with you for the rest of your life.” she said. 

Georgia law allows for people with non-convictions – those who were accused of crimes and found not guilty or the charge was dismissed – to get their records restricted and sealed. Georgians can also seek expungements if they have up to two misdemeanor convictions. 

Additionally, Georgians who have not been convicted of a felony in the past can get a one-time record clearing under “first time offender” law. A judge has discretion to give a person probation and wipe their record upon completion of probation for their first time offense.  

Georgians who weren’t given the option of “first time offender” can get it retroactively through expungement, according to Smeeton.

A felony conviction is trickier, Smeeton said. Those can get expunged only after the person’s felony conviction gets “pardoned.” That can only happen five years after every aspect of a person’s sentence has been completed (including paying all pending fines) and the person has lived a “law abiding life” in the meantime, according to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole. There are additional requirements if the pardon is for a sex offense.

‘Move forward with my life’

In Brunswick, the sound of “Juicy” by Brooklyn rapper the Notorious B.I.G. wafted through the air from outside speakers and welcomed residents who registered for expungements. Local politicians and pastors attended and mingled. 

The registrants came from different walks of life, many of them women and Black residents. Some brought their children. The mood was relaxed as volunteers with Georgia Justice Project led the Glynn County residents to different classrooms to meet with attorneys to go over their case files.

Brunswick expungement clinic 2
A Brunswick resident begins process of expunging his criminal record at a clinic at the Risley School on Albany Street on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. Credit: Erika Curtis/Georgia Justice Project

Four attorneys with Georgia Justice Project, who drove from Atlanta, one attorney from Georgia Legal Services and a local Brunswick lawyer all assisted with the expungement applications. A representative from Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins’ office and the Solicitor’s Office attended to receive the petitions, review them and take them straight to a judge once they were all in order, according to Smeeton.

Local groups Community First and A Better Glynn helped host the event.

Josiah “Jazz” Watts, a conservation and justice advocate, assisted in getting the clinic to Brunswick – something that is done weekly in Atlanta by Georgia Justice Project but had never been done before in Glynn County. 

Watts said he was living in Atlanta and was brought home to the Brunswick-area after the killing of his cousin, Ahmaud Arbery in 2020. His death by three white men, now convicted of murder and hate crimes, in Glynn County ignited racial justice protests across the country. 

Watts said his endeavor for justice for Arbery includes establishing this clinic in his cousin’s hometown.

“What greater way to honor him than to seek fairness and equity for others,” Watts said.

Dina, a single mother and caregiver, explained how a bad day and a verbal altercation over payment at a nail salon led her to get her first criminal charge of simple battery last year.

Afterwards, she said she realized the charge didn’t match up with the kind of mother she wanted to be. She pleaded guilty and paid a $600 fine. 

But, according to Dina, nobody told her about being considered a “first time offender,” which would have removed the conviction from her record after pleading guilty and paying the fine. 

On Saturday, Dina applied for expungement through the retroactive use of “first time offender.”

“Hopefully, my papers and documents will be signed by the solicitor and approved,” Dina said, “and I can just move forward with my life.”

The Tide brings news and observations from The Current’s staff.

Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Prior to joining The Current, Jake worked for the Island Packet and...