Wayne Jones of Raleigh was a teenager growing up in Oxford in the late 1980s when he was convicted of felony breaking and entering.
Now 47, Jones hasn’t been back to prison since then. But he says because of that blemish on his criminal record he has a hard time getting an apartment and is routinely turned down for work, even by temporary employment agencies.
“That was 30 years ago. I still can’t get a good job,” he said. “I’ve been doing right, but I can’t get a good job.”
A new effort in Wake County aims to help people like Jones, whose convictions for minor or non-violent crimes many years ago are holding them back today. Last month, hundreds of Wake residents participated in workshops that are the first step in a process of seeking to have convictions removed from their criminal histories. They and the organizers of the initiative say finding a well-paying job, attending school, driving legally or even finding a decent place to live all hang in the balance.
The program is the brainchild of Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who is working in concert with Diana Powell, director of Justice Served NC, a non-profit that mentors young people in the Wake County jail. The two have received input from several county judicial officials, most notably district court judges Vince Rozier, Craig Croom and Keith Gregory, along with public defender Charles Caldwell.
Freeman first heard about the idea while attending a state prosecutor’s conference in 2014. She learned that similar initiatives were already up and running in New Hanover and Buncombe counties, where the district attorneys were beginning to look at new ways to keep their communities safe.
“Part of our view of public safety is stabilizing people and engaging them fully into our communities,” she said. “The general framework is allow people to have better opportunities open to them from an employment standpoint and housing standpoint so that they can continue to live in the community, free from criminal activity, so that they can improve their lives and the lives of their families.”
Freeman notes that the program follows the process for striking criminal records set by state law. “We want to help people who’ve made a mistake – but who have otherwise been on a good path – get the relief the law entitles them to,” she said.
Also mindful of local police efforts to build trust in their communities, Freeman said the county’s law officials and activists also want to rebuild and restore residents’ trust in the judicial system.
Powell moderated four workshops – the most recent one Friday night – which she says have attracted nearly 2,000 people. The organizers contacted 25 local attorneys who are working pro bono to review applications seeking to have non-violent misdemeanors and some low-level felonies removed from the applicants’ criminal records.
Applicants must be Wake County residents, and their criminal convictions must have taken place in Wake as well. They will learn if they are eligible for an expungement on Nov. 12, when they attend a final workshop and seminar at the Chavis Community Center in Southeast Raleigh.
“They will have a conversation with an attorney who will determine what can be expunged from their record and what cannot,” Powell said. “Then they will go into another room that will have jobs, education and housing opportunities that they will be entitled to that they weren’t entitled to before.”
A second chance
As word about the popularity of Wake’s program has spread, Powell said she’s received calls from residents and government officials in nearby counties, including Durham, Orange, Cumberland and Wilson, interested in replicating it. She said the program is a straightforward way to help people who simply want a second chance.
“They’ve paid their debt to society, but because of the way the system is set up, society will not let them in because of their record,” Powell said. “I’ve seen grown men cry after going in to fill out the forms. They tear up with hope.”
At a workshop last Tuesday night in the gym at Torchlight Academy, a charter school in North Raleigh, Powell explained the expungement program to a crowd of more than 300 people after reassuring them that the program was not a “hoax” or “a setup to get you arrested.”
“This is real, and it’s nothing but the natural-bone truth,” she told the group, before adding a word of caution that caused some in the audience to groan. “But everyone will not get their records expunged.”
It took Jamie Moore, 28, of Wake Forest about 30 minutes to sit through the orientation and complete the forms. Moore is hoping to remove from her record a 2008 misdemeanor conviction for stealing a $10 pair of earrings.
The 28-year-old mother of two children has struggled financially since 2012, when she says she was fired from an Old Navy store in North Raleigh. Moore says she had worked at the store for three years without any questions about her criminal record, but was fired after applying for a promotion when a criminal background check turned up the petty larceny conviction.
“That’s what got me,” Moore said. “It really puts limits on you. I’ve been stuck in dead-end jobs since then. The thing that really limits me is with raising my family. I have two kids, and I have to keep telling them, ‘No, because Mommy can’t afford it.’”
If you missed the workshops
Wake County residents who were convicted of a misdemeanor or non-violent felony in Wake can seek to have their criminal record expunged under a new program coordinated by the Wake County District Attorney’s Office. For information, call Diana Powell, director of Justice Served NC, at 919-594-9076.