Faced with the highest unemployment rate in nearly 35 years, more Floridians are seeking to scrub their criminal records clean.
Judges statewide sealed and expunged more than 14,000 cases in the fiscal year ending June 30, a nearly 51 percent spike over the previous year. Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties each posted double-digit increases percentage-wise.
"People are having a really hard time finding jobs in general," said Stephanie Pawuk, a criminal attorney in Trinity. "If they have anything at all on their record, in an already tough market it's going to make it even worse for them."
But getting a record legally cleared isn't a quick or cheap fix. Not everyone is eligible, and the process takes time and can cost hundreds of dollars.
And even if clerk's offices and law enforcement agencies purge arrest information, the past can still haunt offenders. Background checks are digging deeper, allowing employers to find records of previous trouble through newspaper archives on the Web and for-profit data mining companies such as Accurint.
Which leads to the question: Is it possible to get rid of your digital criminal past?
"Not necessarily," said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, which tries to raise individual awareness of how technology affects personal privacy.
"This is actually one of the unfortunate side effects of the burgeoning information broker industry," he said.
Many of these companies are not regulated. Some have to abide by federal regulatory standards if they do credit checks, he said, "but for those that do not it's like the wild, wild West."
Because private companies don't automatically have an obligation to remove criminal records from their servers, they might have an upper hand if they keep data public entities do not. They can promise a more complete record of people, information job seekers might not want employers to know about.
"You used to have to go to some old county courthouse and look in a basement for a piece of paper to find a criminal record," said Vitaly Shmatikov, an associate computer science professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "A lot of things are being digitized and are easily accessible, easily searchable, so it's much easier to access."
That reality catches a lot of people off-guard, say employees at area clerk's offices. A decades-old marijuana charge may be long forgotten until it keeps someone from getting a job or renting an apartment.
It's little wonder that job seekers are among the most common customers looking to get criminal records sealed or expunged. With Florida's unemployment rate at 11.2 percent in October — the worst since 1975 — employers have room to be selective.
To begin the process, individuals must seek a certificate of eligibility from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The FDLE added three new positions in 2007 to handle such applications but turnover around the same time led to a significant backlog.
The waiting period for a certificate was about six months in 2007 and 2008. Employees working overtime have gotten it down to about five or six weeks now, said Jean Itzin, FDLE's Crime Information Bureau chief.
After receiving a certificate, an individual can petition the local court to order an arrest record sealed or expunged.
Last fiscal year, the number of sealed and expunged cases rose about 22 percent in Hillsborough, nearly 25 percent in Pinellas and 56 percent in Pasco, say data from clerk's offices.
There's no shortage of local lawyers willing to help guide people through the process. Some even have Web sites such as FloridaExpungementLawyer.com and ClearCriminalRecords.com dedicated specifically to getting records sealed.
Brandon attorney Pat Courtney charges clients about $600 to prepare their documents, coordinate with prosecutors and judges and cover the FDLE and clerk's office processing fees. In addition to hearing from clients with "embarrassing stuff" on their records — drug possession, solicitation, theft — he's also getting calls from job seekers finding that their old convictions are a problem.
"If they're eligible, they want it off," he said.
But attorneys turn dozens of people away each month. Anyone who has been adjudicated guilty of a crime or pleaded guilty or no contest to certain, often violent, charges, is ineligible to have a case sealed or expunged.
That's the problem for Sherrietta Hill, an out-of-work mother of three in Tampa who was found guilty of cocaine and prostitution charges three years ago. (She says she couldn't afford to pay an attorney to get the record sealed even if she was eligible.)
One recent morning, she filled out four applications at the Tampa Bay WorkForce Alliance career center on N Florida Avenue, hoping an employer would see past her convictions and give her a cooking job. She hasn't had a job since getting fired from her last one in May 2008.
"I'm so frustrated right now it's pitiful," said Hill, 29. "I feel like they are passing up a good worker with potential."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.