A few years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups launched a campaign called “Defend Expungement,” urging people to contact their elected representatives in their respective states.
In addition to contacting their state legislators, they suggested sending them emails, posting on social media and contacting the U.S. Attorney General.
“We’ve done all of these things,” says ACLU of Washington attorney Aaron Wallace.
“And we’re still doing it.”
Since the start of 2017, the group has collected 1.2 million signatures from people who want to petition the Attorney General to allow their state to seek expungements for people convicted of felony drug offenses, misdemeanors and traffic offenses.
“It’s been quite a success.
The people have been really vocal,” says Wallace, who co-founded the advocacy group in 2015.
“They’re trying to be a part of this movement, so the Attorney Generals office is looking at the data and saying, ‘What are you really doing?'”
The Attorney General’s office has been reviewing the data to determine if there are any gaps that warrant expunging someone.
For instance, it is unclear whether there are more than 1,500 people who have been expunged from the state’s criminal history database, or if there is evidence that some other individuals are also on the list.
“So we’re asking them, ‘How many people have you removed from the database?'” says Wallaces spokesperson Katie Smith.
“That would be a good way to see how many of those people were actually expungers.”
But even if a state does not remove someone from the criminal records database, the ACLU is still seeking to find out whether the person was actually convicted of a crime.
“That would help us get a better understanding of who was actually being charged and convicted, so we can actually start to see if there were any disparities,” Wallaces attorney says.
According to the Washington Post, the DOJ does not release data about expunges on the basis of race, gender, religion or ethnicity, so this could potentially affect people who may be considered racially biased.
But it is a far cry from the time when Wallace was a prosecutor in Washington.
In 2009, the Washington Attorney General filed an expungal petition in Washington state’s Superior Court against Timothy A. Brown, who was convicted of first-degree rape and sentenced to life in prison.
“The Justice Department has a history of making racial discrimination claims against white people,” says Smith.
In that case, Brown’s defense team sought to get a racial discrimination exemption for the case, but the DOJ denied their request, instead claiming that Brown’s race was irrelevant.
The case ultimately went to trial and Brown was convicted in 2012.
According the ACLU, Brown was the first person in Washington to be sentenced to a life sentence.
Wallace says Brown’s case is indicative of a systemic problem with racial bias at the federal level.
“There is a lot of racial bias and a lot that is done in the criminal justice system,” Wallace explains.
“There is not a lot, if any, consideration given to racial minorities.
So when someone is accused of a serious crime, that is a very real concern.
And when they are accused of drug use, that may also be a concern.”
Wallace says his group hopes to work with other advocacy groups to make sure that the U:S.
Attorneys Office does not simply ignore the cases of people who were arrested, or who have received expungals.
“I would encourage all of the attorneys to reach out to their district attorneys and tell them that there is a big problem,” he says.
“I think that the Attorney’s Office is trying to cover up the problem of racial injustice.”
The Washington Attorney Generality says it does not comment on pending litigation.