Right and left find rare bit of common ground on “second chance” legislation

Right and left find rare bit of common ground on “second chance” legislation

(Photo by Joe Killian)

More than 1,000 people descended on the state Legislative Building Wednesday to lobby for the Second Chance Act – a bill they say will profoundly change the lives of those with criminal charges or convictions on their record.

Senate Bill 562 would automatically expunge criminal charges that have been dismissed or disposed of as “not guilty” after December 1, 2019. It would also allow people to petition to have all non-violent felony convictions expunged after 10 years of good behavior.

That will help people with records avoid employment and housing discrimination, the bill’s supporters say, getting them back to work and making it easier for them to move on with their lives and make a contribution to society.

“When they’re out there it can be a barrier to employment, it can be a barrier to housing, it can be a barrier to so many things in life,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham), a primary sponsor of the bill.

The bill was reported favorably out of the Senate Rules committee Tuesday and is scheduled for a floor vote Wednesday. It has strong bipartisan support.

“This is absolutely a bipartisan effort – has been from the start,” said Sen. Danny Britt (R-Robeson), another of the bill’s primary sponsors. “What this is really about is a jobs bill. This is a bill that opens doors for folks who made a mistake at one point in their lives and they’ve learned from that mistake.”

Close to $87 billion is lost due to people being unable to re-enter the job market, Britt said. It makes much more sense to get those people back into the market, he said, which would also help reduce recidivism rates.

A recent University of Michigan study, the first major empirical study of expungement laws, found that within a year, on average, those whose charges are expunged saw their wages go up by more than 20 percent. The gain, according to the study, was mostly driven by unemployed people finding work and minimally employed people finding steadier positions.

The study also found the crime rate for those who have had their charges or convictions expunged is significantly lower than the general population.

The N.C. Second Chance Alliance – which includes the N.C. Justice Center, parent organization of N.C. Policy Watch – helped organize the more than 1,000 directly-impacted people who came to Raleigh Tuesday to speak to lawmakers and share their personal experiences.

Poet Williams

Poet Williams was one such voice. After being convicted of non-violent misdemeanors in college, he had trouble finding housing and employment. From his conviction in 2011 until 2017, he said he was unable to find a job as friends without records didn’t find themselves passed over by employers.

He searched in Durham, Raleigh and Guilford County, but found employers everywhere unwilling to even interview him.

“I was unable to get even a single call back,” he said.

The Second Chance Act will help eliminate some of the barriers faced by people like him, he said, who are coming out of prison or who want to move on after relatively minor charges.

“We should be making the playing field as even as possible for people returning home and those who just made mistakes like I did and want to be able to continue their lives,” Williams said. “Whether it’s educationally or in the work force, they want to try to improve and try to do better.”

Lynn Burke was able to turn her life around after convictions for forgery and larceny 25 years ago, but it was much harder than it should have been, she said.

Lynn Burke was able to turn her life around after convictions for forgery and larceny 25 years ago

After serving two years in prison, she returned home determined to move on with her life and raise her four children. But finding a job was difficult.

Most women who are convicted of felonies aren’t reunited with their children, Burke said, and those who are find it difficult to keep them.

“No one will give you a job with a felony conviction,” Burke said. “No one will give you a place to live.”

Burke started her own business delivering flowers and kept her family together. All of her children went to college and good careers, she is proud to say – and then she did, too. But it wasn’t easy.

She went back to school, getting a B.S. in Social Work from N.C. State and a paralegal certification from Meredith College, which led her to law school at North Carolina Central University. But even with a law degree, her conviction prevented her from being admitted to the North Carolina Bar. She became a member of the Washington, D.C. Bar in 2012.

Now she’s working to change the system, to be sure others coming out of prison don’t face what she did.

“Many individuals can find themselves released from prison but locked out of work and a place to live,” Burke said.

“The reality is that many people exiting our criminal justice system find themselves on the fringes of society,” she said. “Because they can’t access the basic essentials needed to become a productive member of our communities.”

There has been little organized resistance against the bill, though on Wednesday Sen. Harry Brown (R-Onslow) said he has concerns a dramatic increase in the number of expungements could lead to a lot of extra work for clerk of courts offices like the one in which his wife works in Onslow County.

McKissick said that should not be a problem.

“We’ve made the portion of the bill dealing with automation of dismissals and not guilty charges effective July 1, 2020,” said McKissick.” There’s sufficient time for the Administrative Office of the Courts to do whatever is necessary from the automation perspective to simplify the mechanical task. So we do not believe it will be a burden or a hardship.”

There was some initial confusion as to whether the bill would cover things like driving citations, McKissick said, which led to the thought it would create a constant stream of people trying to get those expunged. The bill does not, however, cover traffic or driving offenses of that type, McKissick said, or DUI charges.

David Safavian, General Counsel for the American Conservative Union, scoffed at Brown’s objection.

“Today I heard a litany of excuses as to why we shouldn’t pass this bill,” Safavian said. “One was that it costs too much. Well, we’ll explain that to taxpayers when you’re putting people in prison at $37,000 a year. My favorite was ‘I spoke to my wife who is a county clerk and this is going to make her do more work.’ As conservatives, when did we ever put the needs of bureaucracy ahead of the needs of the people? That’s what I heard today.”

At an afternoon press conference Tuesday Mark Holden, senior vice president of Koch Industries, also made the conservative case for the bill.

“Our criminal justice system, quite frankly, has become a failed Big Government program,” Holden said. “It’s a pay to play system. As Bryan Stephenson says, the rich and the guilty get a better deal than the poor and the innocent. If you don’t have resources, you’re going to get run over. And oftentimes, I hate to say it, guilt and innocence can be irrelevant.”

The most important point is a moral one, Holden said – people who serve their time, pay their fines and makes restitution should get all of their rights back and be fully welcomed back into society.

But making expungement easier and more widely available also makes good business sense, Holden said.

“I’ve been with [Koch Industries] for 24 years and from the day I started, we’ve been hiring people with criminal records,” Holden said.

“We’re a global employer,” Holden said. “We have 140,000 people around the world in all fifty states. We’re looking for the best talent, period. Not the best talent with a criminal or without a criminal record. What we’ve learned over time is, people make mistakes.”

Safavian spoke to the conservative philosophical reasons for supporting criminal justice reform, but he also spoke from a personal perspective.

While serving in the George W. Bush administration, Safavian was charged in the Jack Abramoff scandal. He was able to move on with his life and find employment but to this day, a federal perjury conviction keeps him from being able to volunteer with his daughter’s Amateur Athletic Union basketball team.

“Legislation like the Second Chance Act here isn’t just important,” Safavian said. “It’s a moral imperative. If we can’t help people get back on their feet after they have paid their debts to society, it’s really a commentary on our broader system and how it’s failing everybody.”

David Plouffe, the former campaign manager and advisor to President Barack Obama, also spoke at Tuesday’s press conference. He is now head of policy and advocacy with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, for which expungement is an important issue.

David Plouffe

“One in three Americans have a criminal record,” Plouffe said. “One in two Americans have a close family member who has been incarcerated. So the thing that we probably have most in common, a unifying factor, is we have all experienced the criminal justice system. This is not a small problem. It’s affecting the majority of our country.”

Nearly 100,00 people were convicted in North Carolina courts last year, Plouffe said. But fewer than 2,000 people had their records expunged, despite a 2011 change in the law that allows removal of a first-time misdemeanor or felony conviction from their record.

Daniel Bowes, senior attorney with the North CarolinaJustice Center, said the problem is particularly pronounced in rural areas in North Carolina.

“The relief is just not getting there,” Bowes said. “They don’t know about it. They don’t know to ask about it. But even if they did, it generally requires an attorney. You have to fill out legal paperwork, a petition. It’s inaccessible in communities where there usually aren’t clinics. In Mecklenburg and Wake there have been efforts by Legal Aid to let people know how it works. But in some rural communities, that’s just not there.”

Plouffe said that’s a big problem and one that can be fixed with legislation like the Second Chance Act.

“You have to make it easy, you have to make it automatic,” Plouffe said. “Right now… people have to be aware, have to hire a lawyer, the courthouse may be 20 or 25 miles away. There are all these barriers. We have to make it easy so people can seize the opportunity.”

On this issue, North Carolina has the opportunity to be a leader in what has become a national movement, Plouffe said, and potentially create a domino effect in other states.

“North Carolina is a big state, it’s a southern state, it’s a purple state electorally,” Plouffe said. “I think people are going to pay attention to what happens in North Carolina. Hopefully we can take this really important first step here.”

Andre Harris of Wake County participated Tuesday in Second Chance Lobby Day at the North Carolina legislature. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)