Poet Williams, 28, speaks at a press conference in Raleigh, NC, about the "Second Chance Act," which would give more people in North Carolina a chance to expunge their criminal record.
RALEIGH, NC — Every time 28-year-old Poet Williams applies for a job, his arrest record comes up: three nonviolent misdemeanors.
Those drug charges have followed the Durham resident since he was 21, barring him from jobs, apartments and opportunities.
“I’ve put out so many applications trying to find a job,” he said. “Burger King wouldn’t even hire me.”
Soon, however, he may be able to remove those offenses from his record.
The North Carolina Senate recently passed legislation loosening the requirements to expunge a criminal record. Offenders could wipe out multiple nonviolent misdemeanor or low-level felony convictions, regardless of age, and the bill expands expunctions for misdemeanors and minor felonies committed by 16- and 17-year olds. Currently, only nonviolent, first-time convictions qualify.
The bill also automatically wipes away charges that resulted in a not-guilty verdict or were dismissed. Countering decades of tough-on-crime legislation, North Carolina is among a growing number of states making it easier to wipe records clean.
Crimes that require sex offense registration and traffic infractions couldn’t be expunged.
“The Second Chance Act” measure now goes to the House, where organizers say it stands a good chance of passing. A similar House bill was introduced earlier with 21 bipartisan co-sponsors.
The act piggybacks off of legislation taking effect this December to raise the age for automatic prosecution as an adult to 18. North Carolina was the last state to automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
Supporters say the expunction bill removes barriers and helps reintegrate former offenders into society — an issue that has gotten national attention.
President Donald Trump signed the “First Step Act” into law in December. It aims to reduce recidivism and funds re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated people.
The bipartisan Clean Slate Campaign has advocated for record-clearing laws in other states. In the past few years, Illinois, Kentucky, New Mexico, Virginia and West Virginia enacted laws easing barriers to expunction.
Rebecca Pirius, a senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said automation is one of the key factors to make the process easier. But automating the process requires the right technology, which can be costly Pirius said.
“It’s coming to light recently that even when states expand expungement eligibility, people can’t take advantage of them because of the cost and procedure,” she said. “The process can be complicated.”
In June 2018, Pennsylvania was the first state to pass a law that automatically seals arrests for unconvicted people. The law also expands the list of misdemeanors that can be sealed. Utah followed suit in March with a law that automates expunction for those who qualify.
Other states considering automated expunctions are Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Mississippi and New Jersey.
One of the biggest barriers in reintegrating offenders is obtaining jobs, according to Daniel Bowes of the liberal-leaning North Carolina Justice Center.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to get them jobs so they cannot reoffend,” he said.
After his first misdemeanor at 18 for marijuana possession, Williams was able to have his record expunged. But, he could no longer do so when he got two more drug-related convictions in 2011 when he was 21.
Williams completed drug rehabilitation but said his record has cost him jobs and apartment rentals.
He lives with his parents. After more than five years of fruitless job searching, he secured work with the nonprofit organization Forward Justice.
“I know people who haven’t had jobs since high school because of charges on their record,” he said. “We don’t give them the opportunity to do better for themselves.”
Without that opportunity, many may turn back to crime.
The state adult recidivist arrest rate hovers at 41% within two years of release for all offenders, according to a 2018 North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission report. Nationwide, recidivism arrest rates are around 68% within three years of release, according to a May 2018 US Department of Justice report.
At a news conference in May, Republican Sen. Danny Britt of Robeson County, a primary bill sponsor, talked about the economic cost of locking offenders out of the job market.
“This is absolutely a jobs bill,” he said.
Among those hoping the bill passes is Raleigh resident Lynn Burke, who was 21 when she was convicted of felonies and misdemeanors related to bad checks. Now 56, she put herself through law school and successfully passed both the bar and a character and fitness hearing to get her law license in Washington, D.C. However, she didn’t pass her character and fitness hearing in North Carolina. Now, she works as a self-employed immigration lawyer because she said law firms wouldn’t hire her.
If the bill becomes law, she plans to clear her record and apply for jobs.
“I won’t have to work for myself all the time,” she said. “It’s going to change everything.”