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Public Defender Rethinks Lawyers’ Role in Record Clearance

June 7, 2019

With a background in computer science, Damon Parrish was much more interested in intellectual property—that is, until he interned with the Harris County (TX) District Attorney’s Office.
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"You don’t want to have someone’s entire life to be, 'at 21, I committed robbery, and now I am 48 and still paying for it.'"

by Rashawn Davis, CSG Justice Center Staff 

Damon Parrish II is an assistant public defender with the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in Houston, Texas.

When Damon Parrish began studying at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, he had no interest in eventually practicing criminal law. With a background in computer science, he was much more interested in intellectual property—that is, until he interned with the Harris County (TX) District Attorney’s Office. There, he saw firsthand the lasting negative effects a criminal record could have on a person’s life.

“You don’t want to have someone’s entire life to be, ‘at 21, I committed robbery, and now I am 48 and still paying for it,’” he said. “You don­­’t want that, an­­d it’s not fair or good for society.”

After a brief stint in private practice, Parrish joined the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, where he is an assistant public defender. He also volunteers providing indigent defense in communities around the county. As a volunteer lawyer, he meets clients attempting to seal their criminal records—which sometimes include only a single charge or conviction that is, in some cases, more than 20 years old. Parrish says it’s rewarding to watch clients who are able to have their criminal records sealed. Some of those clients have gone on to have successful careers, something he acknowledges can be difficult to achieve with a criminal record.

“I was able to see how they were able to continue forth with their lives and earn college degrees,” he remembers.

The impact of criminal record clearance became clear in Parrish’s personal life as well as in his work. Soon after joining the public defender’s office, he learned that a close friend had been arrested at 18 and was able to have their record expunged. That friend has now become a successful accountant.

“But,” Parrish says. “He had the benefit of having his record cleared.”

Not everyone who has a criminal record may have the option to clear it once the case has been resolved—many people accept a plea deal or case resolution that could make their record ineligible for clearance in the future. Parrish considers understanding which charges and case resolutions are potentially eligible for clearance part of his responsibility as a defense attorney.

“Primarily, [my] goal is to secure an outcome for my client that is beneficial. And when I say that, I don’t just mean ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty,’ but something that helps them not have their entire life be representative of this one particular issue,” he states.

However, even when people are eligible for record clearing, it’s not always pursued. Often, Parrish acknowledges, financial constraints pressure clients to focus on short-term goals like getting out of the courtroom and back to work instead of the long-term goal of clearing the criminal record.

“When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, your immediate goal is not record clearing but being done with this and [being] able to get back to work,” he explains.

The record clearance process can be costly as well as time consuming. In addition to statutory fees, the process can include hiring an attorney separate from the one that litigated your defense to guide you through clearance. This often creates an even greater financial burden for the client to take on. And while some legal service organizations may offer free or discounted services for record clearance, these resources may be limited. Additionally, the clearance process involves many complex steps, something Parrish says also discourages clients from pursuing their expungement or sealing options.

For Parrish, these burdens are especially harsh for people whose charges have been dismissed or who were found not guilty. In cases such as these, he says, pertinent charges should be cleared from the person’s record automatically.

Parrish is optimistic about the future of criminal record clearance in Texas from watching the experiences of his clients. Fueling that optimism is the fact that legislators around the country are beginning to have substantive dialogues about reforming criminal justice systems, specifically regarding record clearance. Parrish also looks forward to expanding record clearance programming locally through his work at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office.

Parrish believes public defenders will play a critical role in expanding record clearance by informing policymakers about the effects it has on recidivism and outcomes. This is particularly due to public defenders’ deep knowledge of the criminal justice system, the people involved in it, and communities impacted by it.

Someday, he expects, policies around clearance will include a broader set of offenses eligible for record clearance, as well as automatic implementation of that clearance, which will make record clearance more accessible for those eligible for it.

Or, as he puts it, “the law will catch up.”

The statements made reflect the views of the subject and authors and should not be considered the official position of The Council of State Governments Justice Center, members of The Council of State Governments, or the funding agency supporting the work.

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