A clean slate
Regina Hernandez (JD ’14) helps clients clear their cannabis-related criminal records
Regina Hernandez’s clients know how hard it can be to shake the consequences of their cannabis-related criminal records.
Hernandez (JD ’14), a supervisory attorney with Legal Aid Chicago, leads the agency’s criminal records relief efforts. Her clients often find themselves haunted by their criminal records. Readily available to anyone conducting a routine background check, those records can become insurmountable barriers to employment, education, and even a lease on an apartment.
“Even when there has been no conviction, a criminal record limits people’s access to fundamental needs,” Hernandez says.
What her clients need, she says, is a clean slate.
Hernandez helps her clients navigate the byzantine process of petitioning to clear their criminal records. In Illinois, petitioners can pursue two avenues: They may seek to have records sealed, which hides the record from public view, or have them expunged, which erases the record completely, as if it had never been created. Expungement is an option only in cases that did not result in a conviction; sealing is the only option for those with criminal convictions on their record.
As high as the stakes may be for her clients, Hernandez says a fundamental goal is simply letting people know that a remedy is available.
Legal Aid Chicago is one of 20 advocacy organizations participating in the New Leaf Illinois initiative, a state-funded program offering free cannabis expungement services. Since the program’s launch in 2020, grantees have opened more than 3,300 legal cases and expunged or sealed records of more than 680 arrests or convictions.
“There is never a shortage of clients,” Hernandez says.
A native Chicagoan who concentrated on public interest law, Hernandez has spent most of her career in that arena.
“I like knowing that I’m doing whatever I can with my abilities to bring some positive change to our clients’ lives,” she says. “Every client I’ve had has told a new story of how the maintenance of criminal records as public records continues to harm our communities, furthering cycles of poverty and disenfranchisement. As long as our clients don’t give up, we won’t.” –Andrew Santella (July 2023)