by ZACH KAYSER
Winona County has joined a statewide initiative to encourage the sealing of criminals’ records, working with counties in the Twin Cities metro and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison in a new effort to repair the lives of individuals who have served their time.
Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman announced the county’s participation during a County Board meeting Feb. 9. Winona County joined Hennepin County, Ramsey County and Washington County in participating in HelpSealMyRecords.org, intending to make it easier for Minnesotans to apply to their county attorney’s office in order to have their criminal records sealed.
Sonneman said the link had gone live the week prior, and she already had two applications from interested parties. If an applicant committed a crime anywhere besides those four counties, their application goes to the attorney general’s office, but since Winona County signed on to the program, the application goes directly to Winona County instead of being routed through the state government first. If approved, those applications will eventually find their way to a district court judge, who will order the sealing of the applicants’ records. “As a minister of justice — and that’s what prosecutors are — it’s our responsibility to also help people who’ve paid their debt to society,” Sonneman told the board.
Applying via the county and state attorney’s office means the applicant avoids the $300 fee they otherwise would incur if they went directly to the court.
When a criminal record is sealed, it means the record still exists, but cannot be viewed, such as by a prospective employer or, for example, a newspaper reporter. Although records sealing falls under the Minnesota expungement statute, it’s not technically expungement — that would mean the records are obliterated and cannot be unsealed. Minnesota Statutes Chapter 609A only goes so far as to say the criminal records, and their existence, cannot be disclosed “except under court order or statutory authority.” The attorney general’s website lists those statutory authorities: the court, prosecutors as well as local and federal law enforcement agencies can all still see the records.
Anyone with a criminal record in Winona County — locals and visitors alike — can apply through the website. On the link provided at the site isan application field containing a list of crimes eligible for record sealing. They’re the most commonly eligible crimes under the Minnesota expungement statute: generally low-level theft, drug and fraud cases.
At the County Board meeting on Feb. 9, Chair Marcia Ward asked Sonneman if the county’s participation in the new expungement initiative costs any money. It does not, Sonneman said — she handles the expungement applications personally.
“It’s a valuable service for citizens,” Sonneman said. “I’m not asking for any additional money to fund this.”