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Nonviolent offenders helped by new law

Law allows expunging records for some nonviolent offenses

A new N.C. law went into effect Saturday that you might not be aware of. The law allows for the expunction – as in removal – of first-time nonviolent felonies or nonviolent misdemeanors after 15 years from the records of persons who have completed their sentences and exhibited good moral character or behavior during those 15 years.

It’s a good move – one that works to the benefit of both the individuals involved and the state as a whole.

There are consequences to being convicted of a crime, even a nonviolent and low-level crime. Once convicted, even for a minor youthful indiscretion, that conviction can dog people for the rest of their lives, affecting their ability to get a good job and affordable housing, and generally to turn their lives around.

This law will help many in those difficult situations.

This is no soft-on-crime move. The N.C. Sheriff’s Association supported the legislation. It was also approved by three-fourths of the members of the N.C. House and all but two in the N.C. Senate.

The law applies to nonviolent offenses such as embezzlement, stealing, breaking and entering and forgery. But it does not apply to other nonviolent crimes such as stalking or those involving meth, heroin or possession with intent to sell or deliver – or selling and delivering – cocaine. The new law builds on legislation passed in 2011 that allows expunging of nonviolent offenses for those 18 years or younger at the time of their conviction.

A number of N.C. residents testified before the legislative committee considering the change. Some lawmakers were surprised about the kind of people affected. One was a woman who had passed the N.C. bar exam but couldn’t get a job in her field because employers saw a 1987 conviction for writing bad checks.

North Carolina joins just a handful of states with expunction laws. But others are considering it. Missouri passed a law this year as well.

About 1.6 million North Carolinians have criminal records. With 92 percent of employers conducting criminal background checks, those records are a significant job obstacle for many residents. An applicant with a criminal record – even a nonviolent offense – is 50 percent less likely to receive a job call back.

The situation affects the rest of us, as well. Underemployment or a lack of good jobs hampers N.C. residents with criminal records from becoming productive, taxpaying citizens. They will need public aid.

Daniel Bowes, a staff attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Collateral Consequences Initiative, put it this way: The consequences of conviction “follow individuals throughout their personal and professional lives and can have a more devastating effect than their actual criminal punishments…”

Some advocates say 15 years is too long to wait for expunction. Given the vulnerable place many of those convicted of nonviolent offenses find themselves in – with no job and severe restrictions on access to other services – that’s a valid point. Laws in other states typically require a waiting period of between 5 and 10 years before expunction may be granted.

But this is a start. It will make a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of eligible N.C. residents – and the rest of us.

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