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It was standing-room only at Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty's inaugural expungement clinic, where the atmosphere was a mix between a DMV and campaign headquarters on election night.

Stacks of pizza boxes were carried in throughout the day and into the night Wednesday at Urban League Twin Cities in north Minneapolis. There, people waited up to four hours for their name to be called on a portable speaker, followed by cheers or a sigh of relief. Some said they waited decades for this moment, so what's a few hours?

Attorneys, support staff and volunteer law students from the University of Minnesota assisted around 300 people with starting the process of sealing felony convictions from their criminal record in hopes of removing barriers in housing and employment. Dozens poured in when the doors opened at noon and the queue kept on growing. Staffers stopped taking new arrivals around 4:30 p.m. so they could get to everyone signed up before closing at 8 p.m.

People of color, mostly Black men, ranging in age from 22 to 75, made up the vast majority of attendees coming from 41 cities, all with convictions in Hennepin County. The high turnout was a sign that the office needs to host more clinics, Moriarty said, and it was also reflective of the disparities in the criminal justice system.

"It obviously isn't just a Hennepin County issue. It's an all-over-Minnesota issue," she said. "And particularly in our state, where we have among the biggest racial disparities in the country, on every measure, including our criminal legal system that has landed on Black people in particular."

She said expungement is critically important, and while it can't undo some of the damage done by the system over the decades, it's a proactive way of addressing disparities. She also sees it as an approach to public safety: Creating opportunities for people to get better jobs and housing decreases the risk of them committing crime or potentially turning to addiction.

Pervis Harris, 67, said his first felony conviction dates to 1977. He's served time for assault and drugs.

"If you have a drug case, nobody's going to want to rent to you," he said. "It makes it hard on you, even though you ain't selling drugs or anything like that, but that's what pops up on your record."

He said his record "also takes away a whole lot of other privileges: license to carry, working at a federal facility. ... It just stops a lot." As he explained how expungement would make life easier, a staffer called out on the speaker: "Pervis Harris. Pervis Harris."

"That's me," he said, gathering his things posthaste and saying goodbye to those he had mingled with the past four hours alongside his wife, Cynthia Bogan, who didn't need expungement but was there in support.

Harris met with a lawyer who looked up his cases. They connected him with a legal aid lawyer and gave him the paperwork he needed to submit at an expungement class Saturday in south Minneapolis.

"It was worth the wait because at least I know what to do," he said in a phone interview Thursday. "There's so many people that don't know they can get their record expunged."

Moriarty said for those who didn't qualify, they now have hope and are incentivized to keep their records clean so they can eventually have them sealed. Convictions of homicide, sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence do not qualify for expungement. The process can require up to a five-year, crime-free waiting period before you can request to seal a record.

"We want people working towards a better future and knowing that, hey, if I'm doing positive things with my life, I can get this removed," she said.

Deonte Webb, 29, didn't qualify for expungement because his felony fleeing police conviction from 2022 was too recent and he's picked up other charges since then. He was recently offered a job with a railway that would've paid $38 an hour. As the father of a 7-month-old baby girl, he said that would've helped a lot. But after the interview, he was turned down after a background check.

Webb's parole officer told him about the expungement clinic and cautioned him about the long wait, but said it would be worth it. His parole officer also lined him up with another job prospect in construction. He interviewed and is waiting to hear back.

"It's eye-opening just to see how many people are trying to get their life back in order to get their records clean," he said, looking around the room. "There's one person that's white and everybody else is Black. So it shows who is being targeted and who is not."

Kyle Drown, 52, of St. Paul was that one white guy in the room. In the early 1990s, he was addicted to crack and convicted of burglary. Breaking into people's homes helped feed his addiction, he said. Now he's sober and has spent 25 years living in Australia. He came home during the COVID-19 pandemic to care for his father. While doing some job training in Minneapolis recently, he found out about the clinic.

"So I figured, let's get expunged," he said. "For me, my criminal record has never really sort of played a big part in my life other than being incarcerated. I never had problems getting a job or traveling or anything like that. So I don't know, I got lucky."

But Drown did acknowledge the color of his skin probably played a factor. He also talked about how many people in the room were likely committing crimes of poverty.

"The thing is, poverty is a cycle," he said. "Where if you're poor and you want to get money, you do crime. So if there's no job opportunities, what are people going to do to survive?"