This story was written by Amanda Lehmert and was originally published in the News & Record on Saturday, February 28, 2015.
GREENSBORO-On a bitter cold Saturday in January, folks crowded the pews at the Beloved Community Center.
There was a pregnant mom who was having trouble finding a landlord who would rent to her.
There was a young man who couldn’t get a student loan. And a certified crane and forklift operator who couldn’t find a job.
They had one thing in common: a criminal history that was making it hard for them to move on with their lives.
In recent years, the General Assembly has passed laws that have given people new ways to clean up their criminal records.
Such organizations as the N.C. Justice Center and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice — which ran the session at Beloved — have held clinics around the state to provide no-cost legal services to help people get their records expunged or pursue other legal remedies.
Just in the last few months, hundreds of Triad residents have taken advantage of the avenues to clear their name.
“They face roadblock after roadblock after roadblock,” said Daryl Atkinson, a senior attorney with the Southern Coalition, a left-leaning nonprofit organization based in Durham.
“If we can offer a legal intervention that can remove some of those barriers so people can get jobs, housing, education, we can get more productive folks in our society,” Atkinson said.
Nearly one-third of Americans are arrested by the time they are 23 years old, according to research published in the journal Pediatrics.
They may have the charges against them dropped. They may have to serve time, pay fines or fulfill their probation. But that doesn’t mean their punishment is over.
They must also deal with collateral consequences. Those are the social and legal barriers that prevent a person from living life like someone who has never had contact with the justice system.
The UNC School of Government has cataloged a wide range of North Carolina rules that can hinder a person’s ability to get a job, certain licenses or public benefits — sometimes indefinitely — once convicted of a crime.
Becoming a foster parent. Getting a hunting license. Working for a pest control business. Accessing low-cost child care. Driving for a wrecking company. Getting certified to euthanize animals. Running a beach bingo game.
And those are only the state rules. People with a criminal record also face federal barriers and limits imposed by individuals and companies.
A record reduces the likelihood of a job callback or offer by about 50 percent, according to research published in the American Sociological Review.
Even an arrest for a low-level crime without any conviction hurt a person’s ability to get a callback from an employer, researchers from the University of Minnesota and Purdue University found.
African American candidates with a record are even less likely to get a chance for a job, researchers found.
The stigma continues, sometimes years after someone cleans up his or her act.
“After five to seven years, if someone hasn’t committed another crime in that period of time, they are no more likely to do so than someone who’s never been caught,” said Bill Rowe, the advocacy director for the N.C. Justice Center, a left-leaning research and advocacy nonprofit organization in Raleigh. “You should pay whatever is the right thing to do for the mistake you make. But how long do you keep paying?”
The people who packed into the Beloved Community Center in downtown Greensboro last month know this all too well.
Russell Williams, 51, of Greensboro is certified to work forklifts and cranes. He can’t get work.
“I’ve never had a felony in my life, yet my little misdemeanor criminal past keeps me from getting jobs,” Williams said. He said he stole tuna fish and Spam because he was hungry.
Another man has worked at Taco Bell for 12 years, but he can’t get promoted because of his record.
Deidra Bowman, 21, a Randolph County resident, came to January’s session in her K&W Cafeteria uniform, hugely pregnant. She had a string of arrests when she was a teenager.
“I was just young and dumb. I got into a lot of fights,” Bowman said. Those charges were dismissed.
She was about to be a mother of two babies. She has a steady job. But a half-dozen landlords wouldn’t rent to her because of her arrest record.
“I don’t want to live in the ’hood,” she said. “I don’t want to live in the slums.”
Another man is studying nursing, but he can’t finish his clinical work because the hospital affiliated with his school won’t take workers with criminal records.
Rico Gant, 27, a Reidsville resident, is working as a certified nursing assistant and studying at community college. He would like to transfer to UNC-Greensboro, but he was denied financial aid because of his record.
Gant was convicted of a felony more than 10 years ago, when he was a teenager. He hasn’t been in trouble since.
“I didn’t know the impact it would have now,” he said.
More than 200 people reached out to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice for help as a result of that January clinic at Beloved. Lawyers working pro bono were able to help some of those people begin the process of clearing their names.
The state law allows people to have their criminal records erased — or expunged — under limited circumstances, such as first-time, dismissed or juvenile charges and nonviolent felony convictions.
Often, a person is only eligible if they have stayed out of trouble for years.
In 2013, the state also added expunction for first-time prostitution charges in cases of human trafficking.
People who have been convicted of no more than two low-level felonies also may seek a certificate of relief, which was adopted by the legislature in 2011. State Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro was one of the bill’s sponsors.
If a judge grants the certificate, a person may get some relief from those state-sanctioned collateral consequences, like getting a licence from an occupational board.
“One-third of jobs in North Carolina require some sort of occupation certification or license. The vast majority of those (occupational boards) have traditionally denied individuals based on convictions,” even when the crime has no connection to their ability to do the job, said Daniel Bowes, a lawer with Legal Aid.
The certificate also limits the legal liability of people who then hire or rent a home to someone with a record.
Advocates say those new laws are a good start, but they would like to see them go further.
“People are thinking a little differently now about what we need to do to make sure people do integrate and have a chance to get back on their feet,” Rowe said.