Wake County serves justice by clearing some criminal records

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Now here’s a case where enlightened public officials, working with private professionals in the community, can get something done that helps people who deserve it.

Hundreds of Wake County residents now have a path to clear their criminal records thanks to District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, Clerk of Court Jennifer Knox, Wake Bar Association and District Court Judges Vince Rozier, Craig Croom and Anna Worley. Credit also goes to N.C. Legal Aid.

Having a cleared record is no small thing. As anyone who’s ever applied for a job knows, one question on an application has to do with whether one has been arrested or has a criminal record. Employers pay attention, understandably so, and often eliminate job candidates who answer in the affirmative. Some of those employers may give the candidate a chance to offer an explanation, but others do not.

And many times, there is an explanation.

Consider one Raleigh woman who questioned a security guard at an apartment complex after he ordered a friend of her daughter’s to leave the complex after an incident at a swimming pool. The guard filed papers and charged the woman with disorderly conduct. It was dropped, but it remained on the woman’s record though she’d had no other problems with the law. Thanks to Freeman and the program she’s pushed offering people a chance to get things clear, this woman will be cleared and no longer will she have to answer questions that assume she’s guilty of something when she is not — and never has been.

Those 500 or so Wake residents who are eligible for the program — to go through the process of expungement — meet with volunteers from N.C. Legal Aid. The ones who have taken the first steps have met with private attorneys who help them fill out the necessary forms, and then the paperwork went to Jennifer Knox, the Wake County Clerk. Then Rozier, Croom and Worley gave their approval.

That represents the first step of something that takes an average of six months.

“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.”

The system has safeguards, with verification by the State Bureau of Investigation an a check-off from the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

Yes, it’s some trouble. But that’s all to the good for those who are eligible for the program. Obviously, the process only is credible if all those checks are in place.

Freeman says there will be other “clinics” where people can get information and begin the process, and that’s good. It was a signal that such a program was needed when last year, more than 2,000 people showed up at a workshop. Most didn’t qualify, but some did, and for them, the program was a potential life-changer. Expungement is a perfectly valid step, recognizing that mistakes are made in life but should not harm someone who has made good on the mistake and not committed any crimes since.