In the summer of 2014, a security guard at a North Raleigh apartment complex filed papers charging Crystal Bodie-Smith with disorderly conduct. Bodie-Smith had questioned the guard’s treatment of her daughter’s friend when he ordered the young man to leave the complex after an incident at the pool.
The charge was dropped in 2015, but it remains on Bodie-Smith’s record, the only trouble she’s ever had with the law. She worries that it could mar her chances to move into a better apartment or seek employment and might even hinder the work that she does in prisons and at daycare centers through a community group she founded called the Capital City Hope Foundation.
“Even though I don’t have a criminal record and the arrest never took place, I didn’t want a false misconception with ‘charge dropped’ on my file,” said Bodie-Smith, the 56-year-old mother of three adult daughters.
Last fall, Bodie-Smith learned she was one of about 500 Wake County residents eligible to have their criminal records, including charges, essentially wiped clean or expunged through a program spearheaded by Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. The effort aims to guide people through the process of expungement set by state law.
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After meeting with volunteers with N.C. Legal Aid, those seeking expungement got help from more than 30 private attorneys and trial lawyers with the Wake County Bar Association who helped them complete the expungement forms, which they then took to Wake County Clerk of Court Jennifer Knox at another table. Wake County District Court judges Vince Rozier, Craig Croom and Anna Worley then signed off on what Freeman described as “the first phase” of the expungement process.
“It was a huge collaborative effort between the bar association, public officials and the community,” Freeman said. “We managed to bring the courthouse to the community, and it’s been very rewarding to hear that we have restored some trust in the community.”
The forms will have to be verified by the State Bureau of Investigation and then shipped to the state Administrative Office of the Courts, where officials will double-check that the person has not received a previous expungement. Freeman said the process takes, on average, about six months.
North Carolina law permits one adult expungement per lifetime. Certain low-level felonies and non-violent misdemeanors can be expunged 15 years after the conviction for persons over age 18; those under 18 may have crimes removed from their records after four years. State law does not allow expungement of drug-related crimes involving methamphetamines, heroin or cocaine, or for crimes that place someone on the state’s sex offender registry.
The Wake County program is part of a national effort to give people who have paid their debts to society a second chance. The National Employment Law Project in New York estimates that 25 to 35 percent of adults in America have criminal records, and erasing even minor charges and convictions can help ensure that job applicants are judged solely on the basis of their qualifications instead of an incident that may have happened years or decades earlier.
A criminal record is a modern Scarlet Letter that can affect someone’s career, housing and educational opportunities. Advocates say removing the barriers of a criminal record not only helps those who deserve a second chance but also helps reduce crime and makes communities safer by allowing people to be productive members of society again.
“Everyone makes mistakes,” said Bethan Eynon, director of Clean Slate Project, an initiative started by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham that has hosted free expungement clinics since 2013 and offers legal services to residents across the state who have been through the criminal justice system. “People should be given the opportunity to contribute to their community after paying their debt so they can raise their children. And no matter how small the charge, it affects family wealth and community wealth. And with people of color being disproportionately affected, whole communities have been affected.”
Eynon said even though there’s no organized national expungement movement, each state has its own, in part because expungement law varies from state to state.
Some observers say Indiana has the most far-reaching expungement laws of any state. In 2013, then-Gov. Mike Pence, now the vice president, signed into law a bill that makes all criminal offenses – except the most serious violent offenses, corruption and sexual offenses – eligible for expungement.
“Indiana should be the worst place in America to commit a serious crime and the best place, once you’ve done your time, to get a second chance,” he said before signing the bill.
The Wake program began when Diane Powell, director of Justice Served N.C., moderated four expungement registration workshops last year that attracted 2,357 people. Of that number, Powell said, 1,056 did not qualify and another 379 people were rejected due to wrong information or information that could not be confirmed. Another 175 people were eligible for legal aid that could help get them qualified.
Freeman and other organizers of the expungement clinic intend to host another event in late September. There’s also talk among the organizers of developing an ongoing program, and they are encouraging those with criminal records to participate in Lobby Day this spring at the General Assembly, where they will try to persuade legislators to review the state’s expungement laws.
“There’s a lot of interest in continuing the work,” Freeman said. “We are looking at how to do that going forward.”