Hundreds seek to expunge criminal record

More than 500 people filed into Christian Unity Baptist Church in Treme on Saturday, waiting in line for as long as three hours to take the first steps toward getting their criminal records expunged.

The event, spearheaded by the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, was an effort to help those with criminal records better compete for jobs, housing and government grants — areas in which past arrests or convictions can prove an insurmountable barrier.

“There are collateral consequences to conviction and they hit every area of your life,” said Adrienne Wheeler, a Loyola law graduate and director of law and policy for the organization.

Wheeler and fellow Loyola law graduate Ameca Reali founded JAC two years ago with the goal of serving both incarcerated and ex-incarcerated populations in Louisiana. They identified record expungements as one way to have a direct and meaningful impact.

More than 200 volunteers, including about 80 lawyers, helped guide participants in Saturday’s event through the multi-step process of getting an arrest record expunged. In Louisiana, whether a criminal offense is eligible for expungement depends on a wide variety of factors, such as the nature of the crime and the length of time since it was committed.

Reali said the major exclusions for expungement are violent felonies, sex offenses and crimes involving minors.

Arrests are typically easier to expunge than convictions, but attorneys at Saturday’s event said the byzantine system of laws governing what can and cannot be expunged makes it difficult for individuals to know if, and when, they are eligible to have their record cleared.

“The laws are contradictory and often riddled with shortcomings,” said David Marcello, a Tulane law professor and board member of JAC.

The fee for requesting an expungement in New Orleans is $450, a hefty price for a process that doesn’t always bear fruits.

A 23-year-old New Orleans man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he applied and paid for an expungement for his 2009 arrest and conviction for marijuana possession and unauthorized use of a vehicle, offenses for which he served 15 months in prison.

He said an expungement was supposed to be part of his plea deal, but his request was unexpectedly rejected after a review by State Police. His criminal record meant he was unable to pass the application for a training program with Jack B. Harper Electrical, a program that he hoped would bolster his income.

Instead, the man said, he’s left with choosing between a poorly paying job at a department store or eking out a living on the streets.

“In New Orleans, everybody can hustle,” he said. “I know I can step out my door and hustle, but I want to go get a good job. I don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck any more.”

Calvin Johnson, a former judge who spent 17 years on the bench of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, said the decision between a life of crime and a steady job can often be influenced by a lingering criminal record.

Johnson said that the stigma of a criminal past is an unintended consequence of the justice system, which punishes offenders far past their release date by crippling their ability to re-enter society.

“It’s a life sentence,” he said.

Attorneys and other advocates volunteering on Saturday said that the consequences of having a criminal record affect Louisiana residents — especially New Orleanians — at a disproportionately high rate.

Louisiana currently has the highest rate of imprisonment in the country, with 893 people incarcerated per 100,000 residents, according to a 2013 Bureau of Justice Report.

Bill Quigley, a Loyola law professor and director of the Stuart H. Smith Center for Social Justice, said having a criminal record sends job applicants directly to the bottom of the list.

Quigley said those most affected are black males, who, according to a recent report by the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy, have a 52 percent unemployment rate in the city.

Saturday’s event was capped at serving 500 people. People began lining up as early as 6 a.m. and organizers had to turn away those who arrived later in the afternoon. A 21-year-old woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she waited for three hours with her 1-year-old in tow.

The woman, a certified nurse, said she’s trying to expunge an assault charge stemming from a verbal confrontation between her and a teacher while she was in high school. She hopes that with a clean record she’ll be able to get a higher paying job to help support herself and her child.

“I need to do it for him,” she said, pointing to the baby in her lap.