Even the smallest criminal record can cause big problems. Arrests, summary offenses, misdemeanor and felony convictions—it’s all there on the Internet for everyone to see, especially a potential employer or public agency.
“The unfortunate thing is that the record includes not only each thing that you’ve been convicted of, it includes everything you’ve been arrested for,” says attorney Michael Hollander. “Everything that you’ve been arrested for in Pennsylvania, it’s going to show up on there. Even if all the charges were dropped. Even if you were found not guilty.”
That’s why Hollander and three other young attorneys affiliated with the leftist National Lawyers Guild (NLG) started a program to help poor Philadelphians wipe the slate clean—or, at the very least, scrub off some of the grime.
The clinic operates once a month at Kensington’s Hope Outreach Ministries, a rabble-rousing social-justice church currently locked in a knock-down-drag-out fight with the city over an unlicensed homeless shelter. Another criminal-record-assistance clinic will be held at the People’s Emergency Center in West Philly.
On a Saturday earlier this month, an old white man with a weather-beaten face and a black leather jacket stared intently at the screen of a law student’s computer as an exhaustive history of his life’s lowest points flashed before his eyes. The law student, one of 22 volunteers trained to file expungements, goes over the record and guides the man through the process.
Last week, the state approved the first batch of 10 expungements. Karey Coleman, a 40-year-old Germantown resident, hopes that his record will be next.
“I almost stopped trying [to get a job] because of criminal background checks,” says Coleman, a former drug addict who has filed to have a number of his arrests expunged.
“I had no idea that I would be able to get my record expunged,” he says. “All the jobs I was applying for have criminal background checks, and it’s hard to get a job with a criminal background. Now I’m able to go back to those companies and have a chance.”
The NLG Criminal Record Expungement Clinic helps people clear everything that’s not a conviction. Summary offenses—for petty crimes like urinating or drinking in public—can be expunged if you have five years in the clear. And in Philadelphia, where police made 85,546 arrests in 2009 (or nearly six arrests for every 100 city residents), it’s welcomed assistance.
The NLG clinic opened its doors in November, a natural fit for a left-wing bar association founded in 1937 to protest the American Bar Association’s refusal to admit blacks.
Though the group can’t remove felony or misdemeanor convictions, getting rid of a slew of arrests can make a record much less damning to an employer: It’s easier to explain an old, stand-alone felony if you don’t have to factor in a fluke arrest from last spring.
“If we are able to cut down a criminal record—let’s say one of their felonies is 15 years ago,” says Hollander, “well, that’s going to substantially help them get a job.”
Criminal record expungement is straightforward but time-consuming for defendants and nonprofits alike. And for many Philadelphians with a long rap sheet, the $15 charge for each petition—and each offense requires a separate petition—can add up quickly. One guy who came into the clinic had 20 different cases that could be reduced or expunged, a service that would normally cost $300 before legal costs. Furthermore, attorney Ryan Hancock says private-practice lawyers can charge between $750 to $2,000 for their services, so expungement is more often than not a tool for a rich guy who got a DUI or a kid busted for pot-smoking in college.
In Pennsylvania, it’s illegal for an employer to base hiring decisions on an arrest or a summary offense. Only convictions can be taken into consideration, and “only to the extent to which they relate to the applicant’s suitability for employment in the position for which he has applied.”
While there are some jobs where it’s legally required to consider a criminal record when making hiring decisions—like those involving childcare, airplanes or banks—far too often employers refuse to hire an applicant just because they have a criminal record, regardless of the job or what the alleged crime was. This is what advocates call “collateral consequences.”
Making things even tougher, the law has no administrative enforcement mechanism, so it can only be enforced if the applicant files an anti-discrimination lawsuit.
The lawyers hope to change this, too, and make it easier to expunge more offenses.
“Our idea is to have a group of people who are affected by these criminal records,” says Hancock, “so that they can now organize around it: to lobby the legislature, talk to their state reps. To push for better laws that allow expungement to include certain convictions.”
The Rev. Deborah Savage passes through the Hope Outreach Ministries basement every few minutes with a beaming smile, greeting visitors or talking on the phone. When asked if she thought her congregation could make some use of the expungement clinic, she replied: “Starting with me,” referencing a 1993 conviction resulting from a fight with a family member. “I have a before-Christ life, too.”