Two hours before the start of a volunteer clinic in May to help people erase old criminal convictions from their records, the waiting line already was hundreds deep.
The names and faces of those seeking help had a common theme – many committed isolated crimes at an early age that continue to hamstring their lives even decades later.
At 6 p.m., when the doors finally opened at the Urban League offices on West Sixth Street, the line lapped the block. Dozens more, a diversity of ages and races, kept arriving by car or on foot.
Volunteers who were expecting a much smaller turnout at times struggled to respond.
“I’m gonna bring in another 200,” shouted Ellsworth Best, as he tried to control the flow entering the building.
“Maybe 20,” replied Beth Pickering, who labored to find all those people seats.
In the end, more than 1,300 – three times the expected number – registered for help in eliminating all or part of their criminal records.
The legal term for the process is expungement or expunction. But what we’re really talking about here is need.
Estimates are that there are at least 30,000 Mecklenburg residents who struggle to find decent jobs, get a place to live, qualify for a school loan or even get government help to buy food – all because of longstanding criminal charges or convictions that show up whenever their backgrounds are checked.
Now, a group of Charlotte-Mecklenburg volunteers is trying to help. They’ve begun offering clinics to first identify those who qualify to apply for expunctions, then to supply legal expertise to help them fill out the required paperwork.
From the start, the groups organized by the Charlotte Community Relations Committee’s council of elders have underestimated the response their largely word-of-mouth initiative would get.
“We were overwhelmed at first,” says Maria Macon, who heads the collaborative effort. “We had no idea of the magnitude of need.”
Damon, of Charlotte, says past cocaine and marijuana arrests have left him mired in dead-end jobs and made it difficult for him to qualify for food stamps.
Sean says he dreams of “walking down the street with a clean name.” Five years ago, when he was a 20-year-old college student, he says, he and some buddies were charged with armed robbery. Somebody even put his mugshot on the campus Facebook page.
Today, he says, he still gets turned down for housing and is making do with a cleaning job. “I’ve got a wife, a newborn son and a dog, too. I love them all,” he says. “You don’t want this hanging over your head forever.”
Rhandu Adams, a Charlotte expungement volunteer, says the removal of several charges from his own record years ago changed the course of his life.
“We all make mistakes. Some of us make more than one,” says Adams, today an educational consultant. “I don’t believe you’re a criminal just because you commit a crime. But there are things that happened 30 years ago that still leave people without jobs or education or the right to vote.”
Tiffany of Goldsboro, a single mother of two, learned of the May clinic in Charlotte when she called the Observer to ask about a 2-year-old story about expunction that incorrectly was posted on Facebook as a current event. As with the others, Sutton said an arrest had kept her hamster-wheeling from one low-paying job to the next.
Now she faced a choice: Hope for something better or make a four-hour drive to West Sixth Street. Turns out, that was no choice at all.
“If there’s a chance I can get something done,” she said, “then it’s a drive I’m gonna have to make.”
A bigger window
North Carolina doesn’t make expungement easy.
In an effort to fully inform employers, landlords and the general public about past criminal activity, the state limits eligibility to three groups:
▪ A first-time, non-violent offense committed more than 15 years ago.
▪ A first-time offense committed between the ages of 18 to 22.
▪ A charge that was dropped or found not guilty at trial that still pops up on a records search.
That can be a small window. After the Charlotte clinic, volunteers did background checks on the first 210 names registered. More than 40 percent did not qualify under the state standards. About a quarter of those had not met the required 15-year waiting period.
That may soon change. A General Assembly bill awaiting Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature would reduce the expunction waiting times in North Carolina to 10 years for a felony and five years for a misdemeanor.
Not all those in need of help actually committed crimes. One Charlotte mother said her son was arrested last year on robbery and drug charges due to a mistaken identity. The 21-year-old spent a week in jail before police admitted their mistake, she said. By then, her son had lost his job and apartment and was saddled with a criminal record without committing an actual crime, she said.
An Observer public records search revealed seven drug and robbery-related charges under the son’s name. All were “dismissed without leave” in October. But the details still pop up on the son’s records.
“It looks like he committed armed robbery,” his mother says.
Address the blight
On Saturday at the Urban League, a team of nine lawyers, a dozen law students and Macon and her team of 14 volunteers helped about 115 people fill out expungement paperwork.
These were the first names from the 1,300 who registered in May. The rest, if they are found to be qualified, must wait their turn. Macon says there are limits on how many cases her volunteer team can handle at one time.
“What we’ve been noticing for the most part is that people are grateful that someone is paying attention to them. Before they felt ostracized,” she says. “This may give the community the opportunity to see who these people really are.”
When completed, the expunction forms will be notarized, then read over and signed by an assistant Mecklenburg district attorney who will be on hand. It then will be up to each person to file the completed paperwork at the Mecklenburg courthouse. From there, the forms go to the Attorney General’s Office in Raleigh for a final ruling.
Macon says the process can be completed in two to three months. In the meantime, the volunteers will continue working their way through the hundreds of remaining names on their list, and hope to begin new registrations in the fall.
For now, Macon says the group needs support – more money, more expertise, more government help.
“We as a city have got to show interest in our residents and what kind of lives they live,” she says. “Charlotte has always been put out as a kind of Mecca – a great place to live, a great place to raise a family, a great place to go to school.
“But this is the blight under all that whitewash.”
Researcher Maria David contributed
Need help with a criminal record?
Call the Expunction Hotline at 980-216-8809.