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Almost like starting over

Roger Montoya (left) and Ralph Martinez (right) stand in the lobby of Espanola Pathways Shelter, the homeless shelter they helped to open last summer. Before getting his life together, Martinez had a criminal record that has now been expunged. (Jeff Black/For Journal North).

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

After struggling with a drug addiction that resulted in arrests and criminal theft charges, Ralph Martinez was able to turn his life around.

Despite his recovery and going on to become a co-founder of the Española Pathways Shelter, that criminal record stayed with him.

It wasn’t until the Criminal Record Expungement Act took effect in January 2020 that Martinez was able to take advantage of the new law to get part of his record expunged.

Expungement is the process of sealing or removing someone’s criminal record.

To date, Martinez has been able to expunge his two criminal cases in Rio Arriba County and is waiting for a court date concerning a case in Bernalillo County.

“It was almost like a breath of fresh air,” Martinez said when he his Rio Arriba cases were expunged. “It was … like a feeling of starting over. Being able to know that second chances do exist.”

And it is this opportunity for a second chance that 1st Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies is working on, hoping to ensure that more people can benefit from an expungement. As with Martinez’s experience, Carmack-Altwies said she recognizes the benefits expungement can have for people carrying a felony conviction.

That’s why Carmack-Altwies is partnering with the University of New Mexico’s School of Law to help eligible people get their record expunged. Carmack-Altwies said she would consider supporting expungement for people with nonviolent crimes, or low-level violent crimes if the appropriate amount of time has passed.

She said people looking to have their record expunged have to remain crime-free and demonstrate that they are getting back on the “right path of life.” She said that, for low-level violent crimes, people really have to show proof that they’ve been rehabilitated and have made amends with their victims.

“For years and years, I think we have over-prosecuted certain types of crimes,” she said. “People have ended up with felony convictions on their record, and then they can’t go to school, they can’t get housing, they can’t get welfare or other types of assistance. They just continue in the cycle of crime because they’re literally stuck there.”

Collateral consequences

The American Bar Association estimated there are about 48,000 “collateral consequences” to having a criminal record. This can include affecting occupational licenses, immigration, employment, voting and more.

To get a criminal record expunged, a person must fill out forms, gather information on their criminal history and then petition the court for expungement. Depending on the crime, the person also must go through a waiting period. The district attorney’s role in the proceedings is to state whether or not they object to the expungement petition.

Mary Carmack-Altwies

Carmack-Altwies said she hopes expungement gives people another incentive to get out of the criminal or addictive lifestyle. She said that, a lot of times, people may end up with a felony conviction at a young age and lose hope.

Through expungement, Carmack-Altwies said a person has a chance to improve their life and say, “if I can turn my life around, I won’t be always held back by my past.”

First Judicial District Defender Julie Ball said the great thing about this program is that it makes it easier for people to get expungements. She said it gives people without access to attorneys and legal knowledge this chance.

“The backward thing in New Mexico is that the expungement doesn’t happen automatically,” Ball said. “It’s not a matter of right.”

She said the Criminal Record Expungement Act makes the process easier, but it was also drowned out by COVID-19.

Carmack-Altwies said she hopes more people become aware of — and take advantage of — the new law.

For the law school, Serge Martinez, Associate Dean for Experiential Learning, the job of a district attorney isn’t to punish, but to think about what’s best for the community in terms of the criminal justice system.

He said Carmack-Altwies is more of an exception in this sense.

“She has really taken the position that we have laws and we have punishment for a reason,” he said. “But we also have room for redemption.”

Carmack-Altwies’ office will refer expungement cases they receive to the law school’s clinic for review. The law students, under the supervision of licensed attorneys, will then work on the cases and help people through the process.

A learning experience

Students also have the opportunity to go before a judge to make arguments for the expungement of a person’s record under this supervision.

Law student Christopher Hall said the real-life work experience the partnership provides for law students is immeasurable. He said law students are still trying to figure out if they want to be in court and if they can handle being in court.

Standing up in a courtroom and talking in front of everyone can be nerve-wracking, he said. However, gaining that experience is extremely important.

“I’m interested in criminal law and environmental law,” Hall said. “And it’s really just a great opportunity to feel like I’m helping somebody and getting some real-world professional experience as an attorney.”

In Ralph Martinez’s case, he ended up hiring an attorney to help him through the expungement process because he quickly felt overwhelmed. He said he thinks the need for an attorney is situational, but it was extremely beneficial for his circumstance.

Martinez said he definitely would have hit roadblocks in his expungement process without an attorney and it can be difficult trying to get the necessary documents from different agencies. At one point, he remembered thinking, “I give up.”

Fortunately, Martinez said he has legal insurance that was able to help with the cost of an attorney for his expungement.

But not everyone has these resources.

With his record on the way to being fully expunged, Martinez said it will help him advance his career and open doors that were previously closed.

“I think that expungement lets individuals know that it’s OK to make a mistake,” he said. “And, as long as you’ve learned from that mistake, then your mistake can be forgiven.”

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