|Law clears slate for felons|
|N.C. legislation expunges records of nonviolent|
|Published Thursday, July 19, 2012 7:26 am|
Lynn Burke has passed the North Carolina bar exam, but she can’t get past the scrutiny of employers who see a felony conviction from over 20 years ago.
“I have a juris doctorate from (N.C.) Central Law School, and I still can’t find a job – even someone like me,” she said. “Can you imagine the people who haven’t been as successful as me? They’re floundering. They’re really having a hard time. It all goes back to the same theme: How long do people have to pay for what they did?”
Fifteen years may be enough under House Bill 1023 that Gov. Bev Perdue signed on Monday. It allows adults who’ve committed nonviolent felonies or misdemeanors to expunge their records 15 years after they’ve been released if they can show no other convictions other than traffic violations.
“This is for nonviolent offenses – embezzlement, stealing, stuff like that – where someone does something stupid when they’re young, and it’s turned their life around and this is a way to give them a second chance,” said Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, an attorney and primary sponsor of the bill.
More than 22,000 inmates are released from North Carolina’s state prisons each year, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety. Ninety-eight percent of the inmates in prison today will be released in the future.
There were more than 20 prison exits in Durham alone in the past year for lower-level misdemeanors and felonies other than assault of inmates who had minimal prior records, data from Research and Planning – N.C. Department of Corrections shows.
The bill does not apply directly to Burke, who was convicted in 1987 of writing bad checks and false pretense because she has misdemeanors in Tennessee. Daughtry said it is meant to help remove the stigma against people like her who have become upstanding citizens.
Burke, who testified before a legislative committee on the bill, wishes the expungement period were shorter.
“I think it’s a start,” she said. “I think it’s great that our legislature did it and thought enough to do this.”
After she was released from prison, Burke looked found work for a few months at a time to support her four children, but once employers discovered her record, she was fired.
“It was almost impossible,” she said. “The only way I was able to support myself was through self-employment.”
Burke started a flower delivery business and currently relies largely on self-employment to stay afloat. She runs a party bus in the evenings and volunteers during the day at the Community Success Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Raleigh that works with ex-offenders to help them transition back into society.
“We’ve been trying a long time to get something like this passed; some wanted it to be a shorter period of time, but it’s the best we could do to get everybody on board,” Daughtry said.
“This bill is a measured but historic response to the heavy burden of collateral consequences weighing down the 1.6 million North Carolinians with criminal records – consequences that often follow individuals throughout their personal and professional lives, and can have a more devastating effect than their actual criminal punishments,” said Daniel Bowes, a staff attorney with the N.C. Justice Center’s Collateral Consequences Initiative, in a release. “Although this bill is not perfect, it will make a huge difference in the lives of tens of thousands of eligible individuals across the state.”
The law makes North Carolina one of only a handful of states providing relief to individuals with nonviolent convictions.
“This bill’s passage demonstrates that North Carolina’s lawmakers are beginning to recognize that by perpetually isolating individuals from gainful employment, affordable housing and community supports, the collateral consequences triggered by criminal convictions are barriers to reentry and doing more harm than good,” Bowes said.
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