Dijon Harris shifted from side to side, as she waited for the chance to save her nursing job.
Harris, like nearly 50 anxious Orleans Parish residents, stood in line on a weeknight hoping to clear their criminal records. They were seeking help at an expungement clinic hosted by the Justice & Accountability Center, a legal services, policy advocacy, and public education organization.
The clinic offered residents an opportunity to have their expungement fees paid in full with $10,000 from Dillard University’s Center for Racial Justice and the Power Coalition for Equity & Justice.
Dillard Center for Racial Justice director Ashraf Esmail said the organization admires the work of the Justice & Accountability Center and has plans to sponsor another expungement clinic later this year.
“For many, it feels as if they are still in prison because they cannot overcome their prior history and get a fresh start,” Esmail said.
“The Dillard Center for Racial Justice is focused on helping people succeed and we feel that the support we provide will allow people to have an opportunity at employment and provide better opportunities for themselves.”
Louisiana has historically incarcerated more people per capita than any other state, leaving many residents with criminal records that can stymie their efforts to get jobs or housing. The expungement process can seal those records, opening the door for new opportunities.
The expungement fee is $550 per arrest, a state mandate, the highest expungement cost of any state in the country. It is out of reach for many New Orleans residents.
Harris, for example, has “had to work real crappy jobs just to make ends meet.” Her criminal record from one mistake earlier in her life has haunted her for years, limiting her employment options.
Now the 26-year-old widowed mother to a 1-year-old baby girl is facing termination unless she can expunge an old charge.
“People look at you funny when they see you have a background, and having to pay like $500 to almost $800 to get charges off your record is really challenging,” Harris said.
Louisiana has more than 550,000 residents eligible for expungements.
Since 2016, the Justice & Accountability Center clinics have eliminated legal fees for Louisiana residents, through monthly expungement clinics where volunteer attorneys help to complete necessary documents. The center also hosts re-entry and driver’s license clinics, know-your-rights and fair-chance hiring sessions, and online training for filing an expungement without an attorney through a smartphone application.
Sherie Thomas, the center’s outreach and engagement director, said she has met many individuals who lost out on employment, housing, education, and entrepreneurship opportunities due to criminal records.
The process itself is not simple “and expungement laws are extremely cumbersome because each parish has different requirements and systems to file the petitions,” Thomas said.
In Louisiana, individuals arrested for a crime but not charged or found guilty must also go through the expungement process to get the records removed, unlike in other states that automatically clear some arrest records and not-guilty verdicts.
Thomas thinks that once an individual is not charged with a crime or has been proven innocent, “they should not have to pay and go through the cumbersome process.”
Thomas has also noticed a need for more transparency to educate the community about expungement petitions and the services offered to help get fees waived through the Justice & Accountability Center.
All charges require a waiting period before filing for expungement. For example, misdemeanor charges cannot be sealed until after five years. People with some felony charges must wait a minimum of 10 years before filing for expungement.
A friend encouraged Rasheed Richardson to attend the expungement clinic after learning about his struggle to get one charge off his record. The expungement clinic offers a chance at relief, said Richardson, who has poor views of the legal system in America, but positive reviews of the work of the Justice & Accountability Center.
“Anybody that has been in trouble before but has been doing good ever since they got out of their situation, if that felony is holding you back, you need to be looking into getting an expungement and [looking into] this organization.”
For the past three years, the Justice & Accountability Center has been working on the New Endings and Opportunities (clean slate) bill, advocating to change expungement laws across the United States. The center argues that expungement laws should be automatic and free.
“Some people are falsely arrested for things they’ve never done or even when mistaken for someone else’s identity, and they still need to have their records expunged. Nothing in Louisiana is automatically expunged,” Thomas said.
But for Louisiana residents, the need for relief outweighs the amount of services provided. The expungement clinics are offered on a first-come, first-served basis and on this evening, the Justice & Accountability Center’s funding only allowed about 30 people to get assistance. As a result, about a dozen people waiting in line, including Harris and Richardson, were turned away and asked to come back during next month’s clinic.
Clifford Myers, a 66-year-old disabled veteran, was also turned away. He has been attempting to get his record cleared for the past 15 years, he said. Moments like these remind him of his traumatizing arrest and the charge that led him to the clinic.
Myers left discouraged, wondering if the clinics are designed to help as many people as possible. “All these people came out here for a reason, and that’s to get an expungement. Every chance I get to come to stand out here and wait, I get turned away,” Myers said.
To reduce the need for expungements, the Justice & Accountability Center is asking residents to support the expungement bill and to join their coalition, to advocate for changes that would shift the burden of expungement from citizens back to the legal system.
“Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job,” Thomas said. “We want expungements to be free, automatic, and for individuals to receive fair housing, and we won’t have to fight for those specific rights for people.”
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