The Legal Studies Department gave 15 Winona State University students the opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s life by helping prevent certain legal cases from being an obstacle to employment and housing.
Dr. Gregory Richard, an Associate Professor of History and Legal Studies, along with Ms. Kathy Sublett, a co-collaborator of the non-profit Let’s Erase the Stigma, ran two Expungement Clinics in Winona to help clients in Southeastern Minnesota.
The expungements will help seal criminal histories, so records are no longer accessible to the public, meaning better eligibility for housing and employment, especially for marginalized communities. Although not widely available, the records would still be seen by certain government and state agencies.
The clinics—which were free and filled up quickly—gave WSU students the experience of helping determine which offenses were eligible for expungement, prepare petitions for the court, and determine fee waiver eligibility.
Richard and Sublett teamed up to run the clinics in the Winona area to give access to those who were unable to go to the next nearest clinic more than 100 miles away. They also wanted to give students an engaging learning experience to apply what students are learning in class to a real-life setting.
“Not everybody has the access to go up to St. Paul and not everybody has the access to childcare for eight hours either,” Sublett said. “People who are seeking expungement have already gone through enough hurdles.”
The opportunity of running clinics in Winona granted WSU Legal Studies majors the chance to work alongside residents from four different counties, including the Winona community. The real-world experience students gained couldn’t be taught in a classroom, Richard said.
“Students are being impacted by simply working with real clients, real people with real problems,” Richard said. “They are learning about the needs of others, legal and otherwise, and they are using what they have learned here at WSU to bring justice and opportunity for these clients.”
Mitchell Prosser, a WSU student who worked at the clinic, said it felt great to be making a difference.
“In many cases, these individuals have been denied jobs and have been denied housing,” Prosser said. “With the expungement process, they have the ability to apply for jobs and housing without restrictions.”
Not only was the experience valuable in applying knowledge from their classes, but it also prepared students to be better advocates in legal justice careers by seeing a case from another person’s perspective.
“They are invested in the criminal justice system,” said Sublett. “To know that you have students that have been afforded the opportunity to go to college and they want to help people in less fortunate situations—that’s phenomenal to me.”
For Prosser and other students, the positive feeling goes both ways.
“Actively changing someone’s life for the better feels amazing,” said Prosser.