There may be thousands of felons eligible to have their records vacated and the King County Department of Public Defense has formed a new unit to help them do it.

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There are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of residents in King County who feel their lives are defined by their criminal pasts, but a new unit at the Office of Public Defense wants to change that by helping some of them vacate their old convictions and reclaim their lives.

The office has begun a post-conviction relief pilot project, in conjunction with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, to provide legal assistance to people who are eligible to have their conviction removed from their record, said Anita Khandelwal, the director of the Department of Public Defense, in a statement Monday.

The office will dedicate one paralegal and the equivalent of one full-time attorney to begin the work, the statement said.

Under state law, many convictions for nonviolent crimes can be vacated provided enough time has passed, Khandelwal noted. For some nonviolent Class B felonies, a person can ask the court to have a conviction removed 10 years after the completion of a sentence. For nonviolent Class C felonies, there is a five-year wait, and for misdemeanors a three-year delay.

Khandelwal said vacating a conviction can help remove some of the “collateral consequences” of having been in the legal system. For example, it means that the person no longer must admit to a prior criminal conviction on job applications, and it provides some protection in background checks, she said.

“A criminal conviction is like a scarlet letter. It keeps someone entangled in the criminal legal system for years and years, long after they’ve completed their sentence,” Khandelwal said.

While the Department of Public Defense (DPD) has provided limited post-conviction relief in the past, the new unit will enable it to extend those services to more people in a more systematic way. DPD plans to use community partners, social media, workshops and other avenues to let people know the service exists.

Department spokeswoman Leslie Brown said there is no way to know how many people would be eligible but estimated the number to be in the thousands in King County and similarly statewide. The DPD will provide post-conviction services only to King County residents.

“This kind of work is critical to equity and social justice,” Khandelwal said. “A person who has completed a sentence should not be forced to carry that mark forever. An equitable and fair system is one that, at a minimum, allows a person to rebuild his or her life.”

The DPD represented nearly 20,000 people in King County courts last year, according to the statement.

For information about DPD’s post-conviction unit, call the department at 206-296-7662.