Urban League President Sadiqa Reynolds

The Louisville Urban League’s next free felony expungement clinic on March 2 is already fully booked, but in the meantime the nonprofit is seeking legal volunteers to help that clinic run as smoothly as possible for the estimated 400 participants seeking to clear their criminal record.

The Urban League hosted its first Reily Reentry Project event last year, in which attorneys and paralegals volunteered to help hundreds of people with their paperwork to expunge past convictions, with the $500 court filing fee covered by the local philanthropist Stephen Reily.

President and CEO Sadiqa Reynolds told Insider Louisville that within 24 hours of announcing their next clinic this month, it was already fully booked with 400 people seeking assistance.

Reynolds noted that they were surprised and overwhelmed by the number of people who showed up for help at first clinic last February, as people lined up around the building for hours in snow.

For this year’s clinic, the slots are reserved by appointment, and Reynolds adds that while they already have many attorneys and paralegals that have signed up to help on March 2, they are still seeking volunteers to help between now and then to run records checks and process information so participants can be helped more efficiently on the day of the clinic.

“If there are attorneys who can’t be there on March 2 for the clinic, but they have time between now and then to process some cases, that would be wonderful,” said Reynolds. “Because I never want a line like that again, I don’t want to make people wait like that.”

Criminal justice advocates say that part of the reason for the high demand of this free clinic is the prohibitive cost of getting a felony expunged in Kentucky, which requires a $500 filing fee — one of the largest fees among all states — on top of whatever is spent on an attorney.

Since the law was first passed in 2016 by the Kentucky General Assembly allowing certain Class D felonies to be removed from a person’s criminal record five years after their sentence is complete, other bills filed to lower the cost of the filing fee and include more nonviolent convictions on the list that are eligible for expungement have not been successful.

Five bills have been filed in this year’s legislative session to lower these fees, but none have received a committee hearing or vote to date. Three bills would lower this fee to $200, one would lower it to $50, and Senate Bill 215 sponsored by Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, would give a judge the discretion to lower the fee to as much as $20.

However, Gov. Matt Bevin appears unlikely to support a bill to lower the amount of the filing fee, according to his comments a community forum he hosted in Ohio County last Friday.

According to a 72-second video clip of the meeting — tweeted by liberal American Bridge PAC on Thursday — when someone asked him if he would support lowering the cost of this filing fee from $500 because some people can’t afford it, Bevin answered “that may be true to a degree, but I’m not buying it… I understand what it’s like to be poor, I do. But it’s also a function of priorities.”

“When I hear a person who’s got a brand new $500 tattoo telling me they don’t have $500, it’s hard for me to believe it,” said Bevin. “It’s hard for me to believe it. That’s not everybody.”

Bevin, who supported the expungement bill in 2016 and signed it into law, said that while $500 is a lot of money to some people, “it is not insurmountable,” adding that groups, individuals or employers could help them with those costs.

Asked about Bevin’s comments, Reynolds countered that “people do not stand in the snow for hours because they have $500 to pay themselves, they just don’t do that.”‘

“I know for many of us who make a good living, $500 doesn’t seem like a lot,” said Reynolds. “And maybe the governor is right to the extent that at some point in these folks lives their priorities were different. But today, this is what matters to them and they can’t afford it, and $500 is an unreachable goal.”

Reynolds said that she would support legislation allowing the automatic expungement of the criminal records of those who are eligible, but would also support a “baby steps” approach that significantly lowers the filing fee.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]