Expunging arrest records in Philly

Those attending the Expungement Expo at the Francis Myers Recreation Center on Kingsessing Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia sign up for a chance to get an apprenticeship with the Sheet Metal Workers Union.
Those attending the Expungement Expo at the Francis Myers Recreation Center on Kingsessing Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia sign up for a chance to get an apprenticeship with the Sheet Metal Workers Union. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 21, 2014

It can seem as if the Philadelphia region hosts an expo every weekend - on dogs, firearms, or furniture, to name a few - but this might have been a new one:

The Expungement Expo.

The one-day event in Southwest Philadelphia sought to help people erase the records of crimes for which they were arrested but never convicted, thus removing an often imposing barrier to employment.

"Anyone who has been involved with the criminal-justice system, and has not been convicted, deserves a second chance," said City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who organized the event with State Sen. Anthony Williams, Rep. Jordan Harris, and the Barristers' Association of Philadelphia.

The Expungement Expo stamped a whimsical name onto a serious issue.

In Philadelphia, an estimated 20 percent of adults carry a criminal record that hurts their ability to get jobs, housing, and public benefits, according to the nonprofit Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, known as PLSE.

At the same time, expunging records can raise ethical questions.

Say, for instance, someone was charged several times with drunken driving but never convicted. Should an employer know that background if the person wants a job driving a truck?

Some respond yes, it's plainly relevant. Others say no, that an unproven allegation is merely that.

Convictions generally cannot be expunged. In many cases, though, a defendant may be charged with six or eight offenses from a single incident. Prosecutors may move forward with fewer charges. Or they may accept a guilty plea to the most serious offense in exchange for dropping the other allegations.

Those leftover charges remain public, and people generally don't seek to have them erased.

"The reason most people don't do it is it costs money, and the majority of people who are arrested are poor," said Philadelphia lawyer Michael Hardiman, who works with PLSE.

Pennsylvania law requires people seeking an expungement to file a petition and go before a judge - at which time the state has a chance to object.

"I don't know how big my record is, but if they can get rid of it for me, I could get a shot at a job," said Ronald Dublin, 35, who attended the expo Saturday.

He was among about 60 men and women who came to the Francis Myers Recreation Center on Kingsessing Avenue. Six at a time, they met with lawyers from the Barristers' Association, who offered their services for free.

Dublin said he spent 12 years in prison, including a recent four-year stretch.

"Selling drugs," he explained.

Court records - easily available online - show he was arrested several times for drug offenses between 2000 and 2006, some of the charges resulting in prison time and others never prosecuted.

Dublin said he wants to live responsibly and provide for his three children, but his criminal background has blocked him from getting more than a low-pay, no-future job.

"Certain companies, once they see you've got a record, you get no response. They say they'll call you in 30 days, which they never do."

If a judge grants an expungement, which destroys or seals the records, the case generally is treated as if it never occurred. In Pennsylvania and elsewhere, records may remain available to police officers, judges, and prison officials.

And the modern reality is news coverage of an arrest or conviction can live forever on the Internet.

"Once your employer runs your record, that's the deciding factor," said Tracey Fisher, 48, a motivational speaker who attended the expo. He was released in 2012 after serving 22 years for robbing two men and shooting a third from whom he sought to buy cocaine.

On Saturday, barristers' past president Kevin Mincey took down information from expo attendees so he could later file petitions on their behalf.

The process can take six to nine months, he said. It may cost up to $1,500 in legal fees, which Mincey and other lawyers volunteered to waive, wanting to help people like Allan Smith, 23.

Smith said he was arrested on felony drug charges that were dropped once he completed an alternative sentencing program. Now he has an apprenticeship at a sheet-metal company, and doesn't want a record to hold him back.

"I'm on my way to bettering myself," he said.

Court records show Smith was arrested in July 2011 and charged with drug offenses including manufacture, delivery, or possession with the intent to deliver. The charges were dismissed or not prosecuted, records show.

Expo organizers told people that only Philadelphia arrests can be considered and that convictions cannot be expunged. They also said applicants must not be facing current charges, be on probation, or owe fines to the city.

That sent some home early. "They kind of, sort of, can't help me," one man said as he left.

Pennsylvania law forbids employers from considering criminal convictions when making hiring decisions, unless it relates to the specific job being sought by the applicant. Exemptions to that exist for jobs that involve contact with children.

But surveys show up to 90 percent of employers look at criminal records when hiring. Some companies gather and store that information. One firm, mugshots.com, collects photos and charging data, offering to delete individual profiles for fees starting at $399.

Philadelphia law specifically prohibits employers from asking about criminal convictions during the application process and first interview. It forbids firms from making personnel decisions based on arrests that did not result in convictions.

"I liked when they said you have a second chance in life," said Saharra Walker, 47, as she waited to meet with a lawyer at the expo to try to expunge what she said was a wrongful, 13-year-old arrest. "This is my opportunity. It opens up opportunity for a lot of people."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage

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