LAURINBURG — Imagine making a stupid mistake that stays with you for the rest of your life no matter that you spent the ensuing years doing everything else right.
That is what 62 people at the Scotland County Courthouse were facing last week as they sought to have their criminal record expunged at the county’s first ever expungement clinic.
“Juvenile stupidness, that’s what the judge called it because I didn’t have nothing before, matter of fact I ain’t had nothing since,” said JK, who asked us not to use his name. “It was just a dumb decision.”
JK was at the clinic hoping to have a felony breaking and entering conviction removed from his record. In 1993 he and friends decided to break into a store in Wagram.
“I was 20; we broke into the store at Scotland Acres, me and a couple more guys, and we got caught and got charged with it,” JK said.
Because it was his first offense, JK, received a suspended sentence. A check of his record shows that he has not been in trouble since then.
He wants the charge removed from his record because it has affected his ability to get a job.
“I know one person, that turned me down, but the other ones I really didn’t even try because I know they don’t hire anyone with a felony on their background; one was Walmart,” he said. “Just [want] to have it off of me, just have my record clear.”
JK has been with his current job for seven years, but if he can get his background cleared, he may be able to get a promotion or move on to a better paying job.
JK will be eligible to have his case reviewed to determine whether the conviction can be removed from his record, according to District Attorney Kristy Newton.
“It has to be a low-level nonviolent offense. Breaking and entering is a nonviolent offence because that crime requires no one to be present and no force be used,” Newton said. “It’s a very individual process. We have to check the statutes to see how they apply to each person.”
Not every conviction will be eligible for expungement; low level drug offences, worthless checks, or property crimes such as theft are a few of the crimes that qualify for expungement.
Just because the crime was nonviolent does not mean that an individual automatically qualifies for expungement. There are other criteria that must be met, according to Newton.
“They have to have stayed out of trouble for a period of time, have a certified record check from the SBI and FBI looking for any other convictions and verify that they haven’t gotten another expungement,” Newton said. “They also have to have character affidavits attesting to the fact that they’ve turned their life around and are productive contributing members of society.”
The applications will be reviewed, and the courts will make a determination as to whether the person can be granted an expungement.
The applicant also cannot currently be on probation, have recently been convicted or have multiple offenses.
The individual needs to apply for expungement in the county where they were convicted; however, anyone can attend an expungement clinic in any county to get information about the process and what resources are available for assistance, according to Newton.
Those looking to have records cleared were required to sign in, and nine members of the District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender Johnathan McInnis and several members of his office, and three local lawyers pulled copies of the applicant’s records to begin the process. The files were then examined by two judges and a decision was made as to whether there was a possibility of having the records expunged.
On Friday, 12 people qualified to have their records cleared immediately, and five others meet the requirements to have their cases examined further.
The 12 who got immediate dismissals did not receive expungements; rather, they simply had charges for which they had not been convicted dismissed, according to Newton.
If a person has had charges sworn out against them for a crime like simple assault or petty theft but has not been convicted for some reason, such as the plaintiff dropping the charges, the warrant still shows up on a background check. Those people are eligible to have those charges dismissed.
“These people were never prosecuted, and they want it removed from their record,” Newton said.
Those who do not or cannot participate in an expungement clinic will have to engage a lawyer and cover the cost of the process to clear their record, according to Chris Mitchell of the Scotland County Reentry Council, the group helping organize the free clinic.
“First of all, it’s going to be $25 just to get your records pulled and then the costs start going up, but they’re pulling records for free here. They’re meeting with attorneys for free; that means free consultations,” Mitchell said. “They’re identifying people that qualify, and they’re actually going to take them all the way through the legal process to get it eliminated.”
For those who did not qualify to continue the process, Mitchell and other representatives of the Reentry Council were on hand to offer their services. The Reentry Council works with individuals who have a criminal record and helps them put their lives back on track setting them up with access to even the most basic needs such as clothing. The council helps former offenders find short term housing, healthcare, work and counseling if needed.
“Reentry as a whole helps people who have justice involved backgrounds whether they have criminal records, have been on probation, parole, they’re just getting out of prison getting out of jail. It helps them integrate or reenter back into society safely with job opportunities,” Mitchell said. “We focus, really, on the high risk people that are at risk of reoffending. Some people are going to be able to get back up because they have … support, but there’s some people that are out there by themselves, and they don’t have support. I don’t care who you are, if you lose hope, you’re at risk of trying to make it happen and if you already understand how to get things done in a negative manner, you’re going to fall back on what you know.”
The Reentry Council partners with local organizations and charities to provide for the needs of its clients.
Newton is pleased with how the clinic went. It is the culmination of changes to expungement laws made effective in 2017 and the suggestion of Gov. Roy Cooper that local district attorneys work with residents with a criminal past but who had otherwise turned their lives around in order to give them a chance to clear their past.
“It was a good service to the community, and I’m glad that it let people come out and get information and meet with attorneys and get individual consolations,” Newton said.
Newton and other volunteers will hold in another clinic in Hoke County. Once it is completed she and others involved will review the outcomes and decide how often the clinics should be held going forward.
Reach Beth Lawrence 910-506-3169