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Expunction Projects: Second Chances Benefit Individuals and Our State

By Evelyn Pursley

Though it may involve a decades-old act or even an arrest with no conviction, having a criminal record is a daunting obstacle to job seekers and others. The magnitude of the problem in NC is underscored by the following statistics:

• 1.6 million of 9.5 million North Carolinians have criminal records.

• More than 90% of employers conduct criminal background checks.

• A job applicant with a criminal record is 50% less likely to receive a call back.

• More than 1,000 state and federal laws deny NC residents a wide range of privileges and rights, including public benefits, occupational licenses, and child custody, based on criminal record.

In a recent Associated Press article on expunctions, Daniel Bowes, an attorney with the Second Chance Initiative at the NC Justice Center, calls a criminal record “a scarlet letter that you can’t escape” due to the availability of electronic records and the fact that most employers and landlords run criminal background checks, which document every criminal incident. Often, these employers and landlords are denying worthy applicants based on long-ago convictions or even charges that were dismissed or disposed “not guilty.”

But thanks to the bipartisan work of NC General Assembly members, many of those records now are eligible to be expunged. First-time, nonviolent misdemeanors and low-level felony convictions committed as an adult may be erased after 15 years with demonstrated good moral character and good behavior; first-time, nonviolent convictions and drug-related convictions occurring before ages 18 or 22, respectively, may be erased after shorter periods of good behavior; and some charges that did not result in conviction may also be expunged. Additionally, legislators took measures to protect the integrity of the expunction process by prohibiting employers and educational institutions from inquiring about expunged records. The legislation also requires state and local government agencies to affirmatively advise applicants that state law allows the applicant to not disclose any charge or conviction that has been expunged.

“The General Assembly has decided we’re better off letting these people improve their lives. Because if you can’t get a job, or you can’t get a meaningful job…there are a lot of societal ramifications to that,” as Garry Rice, in-house attorney at Duke Energy, explained in a Charlotte Observer article. “I think we’d all be better off if these people were able to get better–paying jobs.”

Volunteer Lawyers Assist

Over 150 lawyers statewide along with paralegals and other staff are volunteering to assist these individuals. “Sometimes it seems it takes a village,” says Katya Riasanovsky, hard-working director of pro bono services for Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and Legal Aid of North Carolina in Charlotte. Fortunately, that village of collaborators is hard at work assisting with expunctions that are allowing people to find jobs and make meaningful contributions to society.

“We had been doing this work with pro bono attorneys for about five years,” says Riasanovsky. “Early partners with us on the project were lawyers at TIAA-CREF and Hunton & Williams. Lawyers at corporations particularly like this pro bono work, perhaps because it is transactional and time limited. We were originally doing two to three cases a month when Duke Energy approached us for a project and also took it up. They wanted apro bono project that their lawyers, paralegals, and administrators could work on together and found this to be a great fit.” Hoping for eight to ten new attorneys, they had over 70 attendees at a kick-off CLE program, in part because Parker Poe also became interested in the project and issued a challenge to Duke Energy that its team would match the number of clients Duke Energy had committed to serve. Kari Hamel, staff attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Durham office, worked to enlist and train Duke Energy and Parker Poe attorneys in the Triangle area. Through this project, expunction petitions were filed for more than 50 clients within a 60-day period, beginning in April 2013.

Will Esser, attorney and chair of Parker Poe’s pro bono committee says, “We are delighted to partner with Duke Energy on this project in both Charlotte and Raleigh, and are hopeful that the project can serve as a real turning point in the lives of the clients that we serve.”

Law School Pro Bono Program Contribution

In Charlotte, the volunteer lawyer program works with law students at the Charlotte School of Law (CSL) and Prof. Sean Lew (director of CSL’s pro bono program) to identify eligible clients for these services and prepare the cases for the volunteer lawyers. A pro bono group of approximately 70 students does the intake, screening, income eligibility determination, and analysis for merit. They send rejection letters to those not eligible, and prepare the case summaries for eligible clients to send to the attorney. After their work is reviewed by an attorney at Legal Aid, all of the cases are completed by volunteer attorneys. In April 2013, Riasanovsky was delighted to attend the annual CSL Pro BonoAwards ceremony to support the expunction team as they received the top student team project award for the year.

CSL student team leaders of the project believe their volunteer experiences have helped them develop as professionals in the legal field. According to Courtney Williams ‘16, “The expunction project has allowed me to get out of the classroom and work with real people from the community to solve their legal problems.” Faith Fox ‘15 notes, “Being a part of the expunction project allows me to make effective change in my community now while in pursuit of my law degree. The power of an expunction to change the course of a person’s life is fulfilling and motivates my desire to become a lawyer who can effect positive change in the life of one individual and the community overall.”

This project is regarded as a possible model for collaboration between other law schools and legal aid volunteer programs in other areas. In September the Charlotte group met with representatives from the UNC Law School student pro bono program to discuss how to expand this use of law students working with the program to the Triangle. They have also had inquiries from the law schools at Elon and Central.

Mobile Re-entry Clinics

This expunction work is also being done outside the largest urban areas—in 12 communities so far—through clinics staffed by legal aid attorneys and students from four of the seven NC law schools. For example, 130 people attended an educational program about expunctions in Edenton. Those who had pre-registered were able to meet with law students and review documents to see if they were eligible to move forward. In March students from UNC plan to spend three days with legal aid attorneys in Wilmington, where a CLE program will be presented to interested attorneys (free for those willing to take two pro bono cases); an educational program on expunction will be presented to potential clients and a clinic will be held to work with individuals.

Why We Do the Work: One Woman’s Story

A single parent attending an expunction workshop had graduated from paralegal school, but could only find work in the fast food and waste industries because of a dismissed drug charge from more than 20 years before. “Although the charges were dismissed through deferred prosecution, many positions I would not apply for because during the application process I would have to disclose this, and I knew that the company would not hire me. I was disheartened because I believed I would never be able to have a career. With the help of a pro bono attorney, I had my record expunged. I cannot begin to say how it feels to have that dark cloud lifted from the paper trail that defines to those who do not know me, who I am. I am happy to say I have begun working in my field, and I love my job.”

Summing it Up

Daniel Bowes of the Second Chance Initiative is also an attorney at Legal Aid of NC and believes, “The primary asset of our reentry efforts is the diversity of partners at the table. In the last few years, state legislators from across the political spectrum have come to recognize the unnecessary barriers to gainful employment and affordable housing facing individuals with nonviolent convictions, and have responded by passing a handful of laws that significantly expand expunction opportunities for first-time, nonviolent misdemeanors and felonies committed before the age of 18, or more than 15 years ago. Now you have law students, pro bono attorneys, local community groups, non-profit legal service providers, and private firms partnering to bring this important relief to underserved communities across the state. The result is hundreds of low-income individuals gaining genuine opportunities to move beyond their past mistakes and more fully contribute to their families and communities.”

Evelyn Pursley has been the executive director of NC IOLTA since July 1997.

To participate in continuing expunction efforts, please reach out to the Legal Aid office in your area:
Winston-Salem (336) 725-9162
Durham (919) 688-6396
Charlotte (704) 971-8382
Mobile Clinics (919) 861-2061

Or you can attend the upcoming CLE program—Removing Barriers and Restoring Hope: The Basics of Expungements & Certificates of Relief, Wednesday, May 7, 2014, at the NC Bar Center in Cary, CLE credit of 3.0 hours.