Kate Kilpatrick

From criminal record to clean slate in Philly’s Promise Zone

Philadelphia residents seeking expungement say they’re denied jobs and housing over crimes they often didn’t commit

Editor’s note: This story is part of our ongoing coverage of the Promise Zone section of West Philadelphia. Read about the Promise Zone neighborhood of Mantua here, a writing program to combat youth illiteracy here and Funeral for a Home, an event to commemorate the neighborhood’s history and prepare for its redevelopment, here.

PHILADELPHIA — Jason Perry can’t find a job, and he’s pretty sure it has to do with the sheet of paper in his hand.

“My mom was breaking up with her ex-boyfriend. He took things out of the house that didn’t belong to him,” the 29-year-old said, looking with resignation at his criminal record, which lists seven charges ranging from aggravated assault and robbery to conspiracy and recklessly endangering another person.

Perry explained how he accompanied his mother and brother to retrieve the missing items from the house where the man had moved in with his new girlfriend. Words were exchanged. Several hours later, he learned his mother and brother had been arrested, and Perry turned himself in.

Although all the charges were withdrawn after his accusers failed to show up to any of the three court dates, Perry has a hard time convincing anyone to hire him. He said he has been rejected for two restaurant cook jobs within the last month. “One guy said he didn’t want me because it says robbery, and the other guy because it says aggravated assault,” he said. “It wasn’t actually like I committed these crimes.”

The Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity expungement clinic at the People’s Emergency Center drew 110 residents from across the city. The clinics are held regularly in North, West and Southwest Philly.
Kate Kilpatrick

So on a recent Saturday, Perry was one of 110 Philadelphians who filed into the People’s Emergency Center in West Philly for a prison record expungement clinic hosted by Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE). The purpose of the program is to remove from people’s records any nonconviction data — charges that have been withdrawn, dismissed, acquitted — that might be holding them back from employment, housing or other opportunities.

The clinic was held in the heart of a Promise Zone, one of five areas across the country that President Barack Obama declared in January as priority zones for federal aid to fight poverty. PLSE chose the location after running Philadelphia arrest data from 2007 to 2009 to find the most common ZIP codes. It hosts other clinics in the North and Southwest Philadelphia neighborhoods.

“The Promise Zone is just a very good example of disenfranchised communities throughout the country,” said Ryan Hancock, board chairman of PLSE and chairman of the employment law department at Willig, Williams & Davidson.

According to American Community Survey data, 51.4 percent of residents in the ZIP code where the expungement clinic was held live below the federal poverty line.

Policing tactics in low-income and minority communities is also a factor, according to PLSE.

“The average person [we see] has been arrested two to three times in their life, which would seem like a lot for a layperson, but if you actually look where they live, that’s just how it works in Philadelphia,” Hancock said. “Say you have a drug raid. They arrest everyone without an ID and say, ‘Let the courts settle it.’”

“Redaction basically removes nonconviction data from the docket to more accurately select what the individuals were charged with,” he added.

Redaction and expungement rules vary state to state.

In Pennsylvania, nonconviction data may be expunged. Guilty pleas, no-contest pleas and guilty convictions generally may not. (Rare exceptions include pardons from the governor and cases in which the defendant is over 70 years old and has been arrest- and conviction-free for 10 years or dead at least three years.) Summary offenses (like public urination and smoking on a subway platform) are eligible for expungement if the person has been arrest- and conviction-free for at least five years.

“Some states wont expunge mixed records [conviction and nonconviction charges],” said Jennifer Sperling, a law professor at Villanova University and PLSE board member. “We take the perspective as much as you can take off a record, the better.”

“One [employer] said he didn’t want me because it says robbery, and the other guy because it says aggravated assault. It wasn’t actually like I committed these crimes.’

Jason Perry

Philadelphia resident

According to a 2010 Pew report, Philadelphia has the fourth-highest per capita inmate population in the country. More than 8,000 adults are in the Philadelphia prison system on any given day, and black males make up 66 percent of Philly’s daily jail population, despite accounting for 21 percent of the city’s population. According to the city’s Ban the Box ordinance passed in 2011, Pennsylvania incarcerates more than all but eight other states.

Hancock said having a criminal record in Philadelphia can be especially difficult to overcome, since Pennsylvania’s criminal records are publicly available.

“A lot of states, you can go down to the courthouse and pull these records. But they don’t put every record online and allow people to literally search,” said Hancock.

According to Pennsylvania law, employers looking at an applicant’s criminal record may consider only felony and misdemeanor convictions and only when it relates to the position the candidate is applying for. Also, the employer must notify the candidate in writing if they have been rejected in any way because of their criminal record.

However, in its “65 Million ‘Need Not Apply’” report, released in 2011, the National Employment Law Project found many employers, large and small, routinely use criminal records inappropriately to deny employment.

In 2001 the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts established the Unified Judicial System (UJS) portal, according to spokesman Art Heinz. The Web portal allows the public to view unredacted court records for free. Although it was initially just appellate courts, Philadelphia and every other county in the state were added to the system from 2003 to 2006 and magistrate and lower-level courts the following year. As a result, employers, landlords and even potential mates can easily pull up any resident's rap sheet.

“Jobs, a lot of housing, senior housing — we’re talking people who haven’t offended for 30 years denied access to housing because of their record,” said Hancock.

For Perry, it’s all about finding a job. He has a 6-week-old daughter who needs formula, diapers and wipes, and he needs to work to buy them.

“It popped up for two [applications] already,” he said. “How many more it’s going to pop up for? Because nowadays everyone's doing background checks.”

Mantua resident Anthony, 27, hopes to remove from his record the misdemeanors he was charged with but never convicted of.
Kate Kilpatrick

Anthony, 27, was born and raised in the Mantua neighborhood, which lies squarely in the Promise Zone. He went to the expungement clinic “just so I can better myself and not be judged for things I did when I was 18, 19 years old — when I was still a young bol.” He has two guilty pleas for marijuana possession and escaping arrest, along with eight additional misdemeanor and summary offenses that were related but dismissed. During his consultation with PLSE, Anthony learned he had three additional offenses related to what he termed a “scuffle” he got into with his brother.

Such fistfights often end with what Michael Lee, PLSE’s executive director and supervising attorney, calls the “Philly four-step.”

“It’s a very common list of charges I’ve seen throughout representation, where people are charged with a felony of aggravated assault and three related misdemeanor charges of simple assault, reckless endangerment of another person and terroristic threats,” he explained. “If people get into a fistfight or a disagreement, one of the two is going to leave with those charges, and that results in bail being set high, and more often than not it’s used as an incentive for someone to plead to a lesser offense.”

Sitting beside Anthony was a 35-year-old man who asked to be identified as Keith. He showed up to try to get redacted from his record the multiple felonies of which he was never convicted.

“I want that stuff taken off because it doesn’t belong to me, and public opinion is I’ve been charged,” he said. “The picture that it paints is a lot harder to explain to an employer and get equal opportunity.”

He said his first and only run-in with the law came when he was arrested for criminal trespassing. He buys “extreme low-income beat-up” houses as investment properties and was scoping out an abandoned home when neighbors contacted the police.

He said he was charged with several serious offenses, including robbery and breaking and entering. After showing the judge photos of the building to prove no one lived there, the felonies were thrown out, and he ended up with only two misdemeanors, including criminal trespassing.

But the felony charges remain on his record. So when it comes to looking for anything besides self-employment, Keith said he has given up.

PLSE has filed more than 4,000 redaction and expungement petitions, representing more than a thousand Philadelphia residents in court, since 2011. The organization estimates its success rate is 85 to 90 percent.

Lillian, who asked to go by her middle name, was one of the last to leave the clinic. The senior criminal law student at Alvernia University said she was falsely accused of five felonies by her mother’s husband after a dispute.

“He filed false charges, and the police broke down my door while I was at work,” she said. The charges include carrying a firearm without a license, terroristic threats, endangering the lives of others, carrying a firearm in public and simple assault.

All were withdrawn after her accuser failed to show up to any of the court dates, but Lillian fears the fact that they still show up on her record will hinder her chances of getting an internship, which her school requires for graduation.

“I need to graduate,” she said of why she went to the expungement clinic. “And I need to get a job.”

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