For the third year in a row, Rev. Thomas E. Hunter, Sr. and Nehemiah Missionary Baptist Church partnered with Judge Rachel Bell’s General Sessions Music City Community Court and Criminal Clerk Howard Gentry’s office to bring the courts to the community.
Hosted on December 15 at the Andrew Jackson Boys & Girls Club, the group hosted an Indigency and Expungement Clinic to assist community members with a felony to have their records expunged.
Different from previous years, the clinic had vendors available to help attendees with things like social services, job placement, and continuing education.
One vendor was the Metropolitan Metro Action Commission.
According to Adult Education Instructor Rene Sherrill who was on hand representing the Metropolitan Action Commission: “We have a holistic care at the Metro Action Commission and offer an array of services. For example: early head start, utilities assistance, and certification assistance. Everything we do is income based.”
Giovanny Carvajal, who is a coordinator with the Metropolitan Action Commission’s Early Head Start program, served as its team leader for the event. Carvajal said they were there primarily to assist attendees with small children.
“We serve pregnant women until the child turns three. That’s the early head start program,” said Carvajal. “Then from three to five. That’s when they go from Early Head Start to Head Start. We provide services like free dental, hearing, vision, and child wellness checks.”
According to Rev. Hunter, the annual clinic has been purposely held in the middle of a low-income community where a high percentage of the residents may be dealing with fines and issues that could possibly be expunged by the court.
“We believe this is what church looks like: coming where the people are,” said Hunter to clinic attendees.
“Once you get your record expunged there are some other events that need to happen, so we are making ourselves available to continue the process.”
The clinic attendees were able to file a motion on the spot to be heard by the court. If declared indigent (without sufficient income to afford a lawyer for defense in a criminal case), court costs and fines are waived providing the ability to proceed with filing out expungement applications to clear a criminal record of cases dismissed with or without cost.
The General Sessions Music City Community Court was founded by Judge Rachel L. Bell in 2012. The indigent and expungement court is just part of its mission. Since its inception, the court has piloted several community initiatives focused on preventive and diversionary justice.
“Justice does not stop at the courthouse steps,” said Bell. She said the court is hoping to do all it can to help break the “playground to prison pipeline” and restore/rehabilitate lives.
“When I got elected I said that I would bring the court to the community in order to understand more of the legal processes and things afforded to you by the law,” said Bell.
Addressing the attendees, Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry said: “We are here to provide a service to you—these are services that you actually pay for. These are services that you deserve. What’s going to happen today is something that’s your right. We do have a lot to do and people are volunteering, but their volunteering to provide services that you have the right to.”
Gentry, who had just come from a homeless memorial event on the riverfront, commented on how the criminal court process impacts things like homelessness. People who have records find it more difficult to find jobs and rental residences.
“And we had more people die of homelessness this year than any other time in Nashville,” he said.
“Over 100 homeless people died in Nashville this year. The number continues to grow. I was standing there thinking about the number of people who are homeless because of their involvement in the criminal justice system. It is so important for us to do what we do because today might be the day to keep someone in this room from falling into homelessness, or someone in this room to come out of homelessness. It’s about your life and your future.”
Gentry also invited attendees to his criminal court clerk’s office.
“Minus the judge, everything you do today can happen in that office,” he said. “You don’t have to wait for this event. It is here for your convenience. Others you might know don’t have to wait, and if there’s follow up you need, you don’t have to wait until the next one.”
Gentry said his office can even schedule appearances before the judge.