LUMBERTON— Some Robeson County residents with criminal records had a chance to get a fresh start Thursday.
The Blanchard Community Law Clinic, part of Campbell University’s law school, partnered with the Robeson County Reentry Council and county officials, to provide expungements for about 45 people.
Residents with low-level charges and convictions within the last 10 years got legal assistance from law students and attorneys on site in Lumberton at the Osterneck Auditorium. The county’s district attorney, chief district court judge, and clerk of court were there to immediately grant the expungements.
This is the third event hosted by the law clinic this year and the first in Robeson County.
From setbacks to comebacks
Expungements, which permanently remove criminal records, can take up to a year in North Carolina. At the clinic Thursday, the process took less than an hour.
For Dennis Gaddy, a community leader and advocate, the expungement clinic was a “dream come true.”
“I’m glad to see it happen, especially in rural North Carolina,” he said. “To see the smile on people’s faces when they come out with a piece of paper signed by the judge here…the courtroom has been brought to the community today.”
Gaddy said he served nearly six years in the state’s correctional system and upon release, he felt obligated to help formerly incarcerated people re-enter society with the resources to be successful.
He founded the Raleigh-based Community Success Initiative in May 2004 to help people in professional development and leadership. He also is a director of the N.C. Second Chance Alliance reentry program.
“There wasn’t a work called reentry 17 years ago,” said Gaddy. “We’re trying to do something to take a setback and turn it into a comeback.”
As a native of Robeson County, Gaddy said getting an expungement can help restore hope for people in rural areas who are often defined by crimes they committed.
“It’s historic and something that gives people hope,” he said. ‘When you run out of hope, you’re liable to do anything.”
While it is no secret that criminal records are a barrier for formerly incarcerated people, local reentry programs work hard to offer legal and community resources to make transitions back into society smoother.
Twana Ray and Bernice McPhatter of the Hoke County Reentry Council attended the clinic to observe the process in hopes of hosting an event in their county.
“A majority of our clients tend to have trouble getting employment and housing,” McPhatter said. “The charges that they have can be expunged. It’s key in terms of making resources more available for individuals.”
McPhatter emphasized the importance of expungements and housing. With a criminal record, housing applications are often denied, leaving people homeless.
“It’s motivating,” Ray said. “Because they have so much hanging over the head that was negative in their past, it opens up their motivation of who they are. They need that hope.”
Meeting a great legal need
Newly appointed Chief District Court Judge Angelica McIntyre said the expungement clinic was meeting a “great need” in Robeson County.
“This is the first expunction clinic that we’ve done here,” said McIntyre, a graduate of Campbell’s law school. “We have a great need in this county to help people get back on their feet and have the opportunity for employment.”
Home to about 131,000 people, Robeson County is one of the poorest in the state. Access to legal services in the county is limited compared to other metropolitan areas. Getting expungements done through private attorneys can often be an expensive process.
“Income and ability to pay should not be a factor in whether or not you can provide for your family,” said McIntyre, who is the first Lumbee Native to serve as a district court judge in the state.
McIntyre said charges on people’s records prevent them from having fair and equal access to basic needs like driver’s licenses.
“Most of what we’re handling today are cases that were low-level charges that happened to folks over a decade ago,” said McIntyre. “That charge from a decade ago has prevented them from being able to provide for their families…and having the opportunity for a fresh start is not only good for them but it’s good for Robeson County as a whole.”
Expungement laws in the state have changed significantly, according to McIntyre, and now cases where a person was found not guilty or if a case was dismissed can also be expunged.
“There was a time where you could have one charge expunged and that was it,” she said. “When folks have charges dismissed it still shows on their records and that can be an impediment. This allows for them to have that removed from their record all together.”
The Clerk of Court for the county, Shelena Smith, was also on site to process all expungement documents after judges signed off on them.
Robeson County District Attorney Matt Scott said opportunities to work with people and remove barriers to their success was necessary. This was his first time participating in an expungement clinic.
“To understand that these individuals that have come here today actually took their time out to do the application and put the leg work in alone shows that they’re trying to make a change,” Scott said. “Anytime that you can help and foster that and provide hope where hope is lacking is always a blessing.”
He said he hoped the clinic helped people clean up their records, which would in turn makes the community safer.
Scott said the clinic had more than 100 applicants that applied for the expungements. Unfortunately, he said, all of them could not get help.
“I pray this is not a one-off, and I don’t believe it will be,” he said. “I’m hoping this can have a snowball effect to more and more opportunities.”
A passion for people
For the 11 law students and administrative staff in attendance at the clinic, working to provide services was bigger than just being present. Under the supervision of law clinic director Ashley Campbell, law students work pro-bono with community organizations that provide reentry services and resources to formerly incarcerated people.
“It always feels good to give back,” said Christopher Hamby, a rising second-year law student at Campbell. “This seems like a great way to brighten people’s futures.”
Hamby said he has gotten experience working with people seeking expungements through the school before and said he hopes to continue working pro-bono in the community.
“I definitely would love to circle back around to it at some point in my actual legal career,” said Hamby, a native of Boone. “It gives you a chance to help.”
The next expungement clinic will take place in Onslow County this fall.
Regional Enterprise Reporter Kristen Johnson can be reached at [email protected] or 910-486-3570.
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