"Residents line up for a fresh start"

Residents line up for a fresh start
They try to clear criminal records

Sunday, March 30, 2008
By Katy Reckdahl Staff writer

Until last week, Consulleo Anderson, 41, was working as a personal care attendant, happily caring for the elderly and frail. "I love doing it. Love doing it," she said.

But then a routine criminal-records check revealed a quarter-century-old theft charge against her, even though she said the actual thief was her child, a toddler at the time. She was fired.

On Saturday, armed with an envelope of court paperwork, Anderson headed to Expungement Day, which paired more than two dozen volunteer lawyers with people hoping to clear their criminal records.

The event, which drew more than 400 people to the Treme Community Center, was sponsored by the Orleans Parish public defender's office along with the advocacy groups Safe Streets/Strong Communities and Critical Resistance.

In 1984, Anderson said, she was leaving her pediatrician's office when her son grabbed an otoscope, a lamp used to examine children's ears. She was holding him in one arm and her baby bag in the other as they crammed into one of the packed elevators at Charity Hospital. She was late, she said, so she sprinted out of the elevator and down the sidewalk, just in time to catch her bus.

As she was running, she said, she noticed that her son was holding the otoscope. He was 14 months old, "that age where they pick everything up," she said. She intended to return it but forgot about it when she got home, she said. It sat in the baby bag unnoticed until the police knocked on her door.

Shocked, she handed over the instrument, but she was arrested anyway. As a 17-year-old working mother, Anderson didn't get the best legal help, she said. She was convicted of theft.

A minor rap. But last week, its weight felt unbearable. "Made me feel like I got a lifetime sentence without parole," she said.

On Saturday, Anderson hoped to wipe that charge from her record. Inside the community center's gymnasium, a lawyer helped her file for expungement.

A first for New Orleans

It's a two-step process: First, the attorney files a motion in Criminal District Court. If a judge approves the expungement, an order will be filed with the clerk of court, the Louisiana State Police and the FBI. Typically, expungement is expensive: $325 per charge, $200 of which goes to the court, the other $125 to the State Police.

The sponsoring groups hope to convince the judges to waive their $200 fee for the Treme Center applicants. The groups are raising money to pay the State Police fees.

Helping to subsidize expungements is a good investment, allowing people with minor convictions to land jobs and housing and attend school, said Ursula Price, a Safe Streets organizer.

"Our community cannot be safe when so many of its members are permanently locked out of society," she said, citing the high number of arrests in Orleans Parish, half of which in 2007 were for municipal or traffic violations, according to a Metropolitan Crime Commission report.

Many of those arrests didn't make it to court but still are a black mark for potential employers, Price said.

In some cities, judges hold monthly expungement sessions, said Norris Henderson, co-director of Safe Streets, who visited courts in California with his co-workers while planning Saturday's event. "But this is the first time in the history of New Orleans that something of this size has addressed the issue," he said.

'Important to the recovery'

By 10 a.m., the line at the Treme Center stretched out the door and around the block. District Attorney Keva Landrum-Johnson walked past the line of men and women, young and old, many with kids and grandchildren in tow.

"Expungement is important to the recovery of New Orleans," Landrum-Johnson said, because it allows people to seek work with records cleared of arrests, acquittals and selected minor and nonviolent convictions. "This doesn't take the emphasis off prosecution," she said. "But it can allow someone a fresh start."

Most of the people in the room echoed her sentiments. They were requesting expungement because they wanted better employment, they said.

A criminal record hampers self-employed people as well as job applicants because Louisiana licensing statutes for nearly every profession require that a person be of "good moral character," paralegal Randy Tucker said.

Everyone from nurses and embalmers to cosmetologists and barbers must meet that standard in order to be licensed, he said. "Let's say a guy is a good barber and you know it. You can't hire him without a license because your insurance won't cover you," he said.

Past mistakes

Unlike many others in the room, Anthony Howard has bosses who didn't flinch at his record. But Howard, 34, was still trying to expunge his one and only conviction, for "accessory after the fact." For one thing, it nags at him. "It's a black eye," he said. More important, Howard, a fitter at a local shipyard, wants to become an engineer, but his offense bars him from receiving federal school aid.

One 51-year-old man, a well-known leader in his community, said that, despite several years of sobriety, he has a criminal record from a time when he was addicted to drugs. "I got hooked, and it was a foolish mistake," said the man, who like most of those in the room didn't want his name used.

Twice, in 1998 and 2000, he pled guilty to crack-cocaine possession. Now those offenses stand between him and running a community center. "I love coaching kids; I've been doing it since I was 16," he said. "But in order to get my own playground, I have to have a clean record."

He's currently volunteering as a coach. "That has its own rewards," he said. "But I'd like to be able to do this work for a living."

After waiting a few hours, the man sat down with a lawyer and explained his situation. She looked up his charges on a laptop and made some notes. The first felony conviction was eligible for expungement, she said, but not the second. Louisiana law allows only one felony expungement during a lifetime.

The man's face fell. "How can a person know that a guilty plea will affect him years into the future?" he said

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Katy Reckdahl can be reached at kreckdahl [at] timespicayune [dot] com or (504) 826-3396.