See more of the story

Makala Roberts had just started a job as a dishwasher at her son's middle school when school officials got the results of her criminal background check.

"They dragged me out of that school," said Roberts of the incident three years ago. "I was on the PTA, but I was not allowed to wash dishes."

What's crazy is that Roberts, who is 44 and lives in Winona, Minn., has never been convicted of a crime. In 2004, she said, an abusive ex-boyfriend ignored a restraining order, broke into her house and lunged at her. She was cutting vegetables and stabbed him with a paring knife, causing minor injury. She was charged with second-degree assault, but when she appeared in court, the judge noted the restraining order and dismissed the case.

Despite the dismissal, the charge alone got Roberts kicked out of nursing school, in her fourth year.

"I had stayed out of trouble, not done anything wrong," she said. "I didn't know how to deal with it."

Roberts spent years working in low-paying jobs. Then she met Kathy Sublett, founder of Let's Erase the Stigma, a Winona nonprofit that offers free help to people trying to escape the shadow of past criminal histories, drug addictions, bad credit records.

"Just because you have committed a crime or made a mistake, that shouldn't be a life sentence," said Sublett, who also lives in Winona. "We believe that if you make a mistake, you fix it and move on."

Sublett guided Roberts through the process of getting her record expunged, and a judge approved it.

"The very next day, I applied for college," Roberts said. Now she's studying criminal justice and training to be an emergency medical technician.

Criminal expungement is a long, complex process through which people who've been arrested, charged or sentenced for certain crimes can — after serving a sentence, completing probation and committing no new offenses — get a court order to seal the records. (Some offenses, such as murder and sexual assault, can't be expunged.) Though the records are still accessible to law-enforcement agencies, immigration and other officials, they are hidden from public view.

The process does not require a lawyer or other expert — individuals can do it themselves — but for many it's not easy to navigate.

Anthony Wallace has been getting guidance from Sublett on expunging a handful of offenses from the early 1990s — receipt of stolen property, disorderly conduct, selling drugs, giving false information to the police. The 50-year-old truck driver has lost jobs because of his record, though it's been clean since he left prison nearly 30 years ago.

"Ever since then I've been trying to stand the straight and narrow, which I have, and provide for my family," said Wallace, who has six children and seven grandchildren and has moved from Brooklyn Park to Arlington, Texas.

Sublett knows firsthand what it's like to be haunted by long-ago mistakes. In the 1990s, when she was in her 30s, she became addicted to heroin and spent time in prison for drug sales and check forgery.

Then she went through treatment, became a Christian and resolved to turn her life around.

"I really wanted to allow God to guide me to my purpose because I knew my purpose was better than how I was acting and what I was doing," Sublett said. "That's when I realized you can make a mistake, fix it and move on."

But there were obstacles. Sublett has been denied jobs. And three years ago, at age 60, she was turned down for an apartment rental.

In 2019, Sublett researched expungement and obtained her own. That inspired her to launch Let's Erase the Stigma with assistance from Engage Winona, a nonprofit with a program called Lived Experience Leaders for people who have ideas based on their own experiences.

Supported by grants from the Winona Community Foundation and Walmart, Sublett offers instruction in expungement as well as financial literacy and cultural humility. (She does not offer personal legal or financial advice, she stressed, and has participants sign a disclaimer acknowledging that.)

Sublett was named among this year's "Top Women in Finance in Minnesota" by Finance & Commerce newspaper, and "50 over 50" by AARP Minnesota and Pollen.

"Kathy's work is the kind of deep, grassroots community work that you wish you could see more of," said Marcia Ratliff, Engage Winona's executive director. "She's intimately aware of those barriers because she's experienced all those challenges and the hoops you have to jump through."

Playing catch-up

Employers or landlords doing background checks are only supposed to consider the past seven years of records, said Tonya van Tol, Winona resident and manager of Justice Support Services in La Crosse County, Wis. But entire life histories are easy to view and denials are rampant.

"The criminal justice system is sort of just catching up and having a reality check about the effect of incarceration on people," she said.

Hiring people despite criminal histories can advantage both sides, van Tol said. Fields typically barred to people with criminal records — including education, health care, and social work — are facing severe labor shortages. They are also fields that research shows could benefit from more diverse workforces serving diverse populations.

"We need more Black and brown folks in these jobs because they lend different experiences and perspectives and relatability," van Tol said. "When we shut down people because of a criminal history issue we're shutting down those people because we over-arrest them."

Cierra Walker was never even arrested. What happened, she said, was that her 6-year-old son publicly accused her of neglect and abuse because he wanted to live with his father. Although she was acquitted in court, because of the record Walker lost licenses as a certified nursing assistant and personal care assistant (two other job categories with critical worker shortages). She turned to low-paying jobs in factories and fast-food restaurants.

"It's kind of put a damper on my life plans," said Walker, 30. "How many other people are suffering from similar consequence of having their lives tampered with or not being able to fulfill their own personal dreams because these things appear on their background?"

Sublett helped Walker get her record expunged and her finances in order. Walker now helps teach Let's Erase the Stigma's free budgeting classes.

"Kathy was really like my confidant and spiritual counselor," Walker said. "I could have really gone into dark places with my mental health, and she strengthened me. She became my protector and my mother and my best friend."