Eight months since a Brunswick legal clinic sought to clear the criminal records of 150 residents, more than half remain pending. 

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The Georgia Justice Project, which sponsored the November clinic, said over 50% of the arrests it requested for restriction await action from prosecutors. The Brunswick-area district attorney said his agency has been working through the requests diligently while also balancing the prosecution of crimes. 

Brunswick residents living with criminal records see impacts in their abilities to access education, housing and jobs. Criminal cases can be cleared under Georgia law. Eligible cases often include non-convictions, where criminal charges were dismissed, and cases in which defendants were never told that a first-time offense could be cleared. Misdemeanor offenses can also be restricted. 

Clinics offer a streamlined process to apply and get requests in the hands of prosecutors. From there, prosecutors submit approved requests to a judge to sign. But the months-long delays from the Brunswick clinic are longer than in other jurisdictions which have hosted record restriction events, according to GJP Legal Director Brenda Smeeton.

Smeeton said she recognizes Glynn County had not done an event like this before and that there are limited capacities in some prosecutors’ offices.

However, restriction came easily and early for a former Glynn County Police officer convicted of doing drugs and sleeping with informants while on the job, incensing some residents. Superior Court Judge Anthony Harrison restricted the record of former officer James Cassada in May because he was sentenced as a first-time offender. 

“This is something that should be afforded to every citizen. But it’s not. It shouldn’t be accessible just because they work in law enforcement or any other space or industry, and not to the everyday hardworking citizen who is trying to better their lives,” community activist and clinic organizer Josiah “Jazz” Watts said.

Mixed figures on restrictions

The available data on Brunswick’s restrictions paints an incomplete picture. Smeeton with GJP would not specify how many people’s requests were still pending, other than stating more than 50%. 

Brunswick-area DA Keith Higgins said he did not readily have numbers on pending record restrictions, but he said his office has processed requests made by 70 people. Higgins conceded he was unsure if the 70 may have included requests made before and after the clinic. Higgins said 92 arrests (people can have multiple arrests on their record) were approved for restriction, 20 were denied and 6 of those explicitly sent to state court.

Solicitor Maria Lugue, who handles misdemeanor cases, said her agency reviewed all 150 people’s cases, and processed all the misdemeanor cases eligible for record restriction. She did not readily have numbers on how many total arrests her agency processed. Most arrests were approved for restriction and 9 arrests were denied, which she is re-reviewing.

Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins

Higgins said some delays were due to incomplete applications vetted by the Georgia Justice Project. 

“This is something that we do as time permits, amongst all the other duties that we have,” he said.

Higgins and Lugue both said this clinic was new for Glynn County, which contributed to some delays and inefficiencies. 

Higgins has instituted new processes to make applying for record restriction more efficient, he said, like a simplified application form that seeks more necessary information and computer terminals at the DA’s office that get restrictions completed before a judge needs to sign.

Both Smeeton and Watts say they want a regular second-chance desk in Brunswick to continue to provide residents with record-clearing help. Within one day of announcing the record restriction event last fall, 150 Brunswick residents registered to be considered. 

Watts said the benefits of record clearing are numerous, including economic, holistic and legal.

“If they work together it works better for everyone, gives people access to education, employment,” Watts said. “And the (justice) system is not as clogged up because they’re working within the confines of the law.”

Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Email him at jake.shore@thecurrentga.org Prior to joining The Current,...