By JONATHAN TILOVE
July 25, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
EAST ORANGE, N.J. _ If Sunni A. Salahuddin is not in when you call, his voice mail message instructs you to leave not just your name and number, but your “date of arrest or conviction.” That’s the kind of information Salahuddin needs, so he can make it go away.
Clear Your Record! That’s the name of Salahuddin’s business.
Salahuddin calls himself an “expungement technician.” For a few hundred dollars, a fraction of what a lawyer would charge, the paralegal helps people scrub their records clean of arrests or convictions _ blots that can mark them for life, foreclosing opportunities to rise above their misdeeds.
Salahuddin is the manifestation of a nationwide movement to contend with a crisis: With unprecedented numbers of African-Americans carrying some kind of record, and post-9/11 employers ever more vigilant in checking backgrounds, black communities are choking with folks who remain blacklisted even after paying their debt to society. Depending on the crime and circumstance, they may be denied jobs, public housing, welfare benefits, student loans or the right to vote.
In recent months, expungement has come alive as an issue in black America.
Black elected officials are at the forefront of efforts to expand expungement opportunities in Ohio, Illinois and California, as well as on the federal level. Thousands of people have brought copies of their criminal records to “expungement summits” staffed by volunteer lawyers at schools and churches in Mississippi, Chicago and Oakland, Calif. The San Francisco public defender’s office has a full-time lawyer doing nothing but expungements.
U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis of Chicago, whose district includes stretches where 70 percent of black men aged 18 to 45 have a criminal record, began the summits a few years ago. When he arrived at the first, he recalls, “I’m thinking to myself, `Somebody must be giving out food baskets here.’ There were 700 to 800 people.” Subsequent events have drawn more than 3,000 each.
Earlier this year, the Rev. Mark C. Olds, who served time for bank robbery and manslaughter, launched the National Restoration Movement USA in Cleveland, holding expungement forums there and in other Ohio cities. Olds, who was inspired by a revelation while playing golf, hopes to take the movement to 150 cities nationwide, beginning with Birmingham, Ala., Lafayette, La., and Wichita, Kan.
Expungement has dubious appeal for a broader public wanting more to be safe than sorry.
“It’s just a fraud to suggest that America is the land of second chances, because clearly it is not,” says Margaret Colgate Love. Love, the former pardon attorney for the United States, just completed the first study to look state by state at the legal options available to ex-offenders seeking relief from the collateral consequences of their criminal conviction.
What Love discovered was a motley, ungainly collection of provisions that defy clear understanding. While many states have some sort of expungement provision, quite a few have been scaled back since the 1970s and most apply only to first offenses or misdemeanors.
Love finds expungement problematic _ first because it is based on “rewriting history,” then because it assumes that in this day and age information can truly be erased.
“On the other hand, we don’t seem to be able to persuade people that they should not freak out when they see that someone has an old conviction,” she says. “We need a national dialogue on how we’re going to neutralize a criminal record so it is not toxic.”
In the meantime, there is expungement.
“Everybody deserves a second chance,” says Salahuddin, dressed in a gray three-piece suit with mustard gold shirt and a knit kufi skull cap. He works from his home, a vestige of East Orange’s now faded glory _ 18 rooms, four fireplaces. His sister, Frances Patterson, bought it 30 years ago, and lives there as well. It is alive with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Despite its suburban patina, East Orange is as chockablock with ex-offenders as neighboring Newark. Near Salahuddin’s house a street is blockaded by police who have designated it a drug hot spot. Nightfall belongs to gangs.
The strength of the community is in folks like Ar-Rahiem Muhammad Lawrence.
Lawrence, who just turned 56, is a model citizen. Husband. Father. Pop Warner football coach. He was for many years the Parent-Teacher Organization president for the Dionne Warwick Institute, the public elementary school his sons attended in East Orange. He now works at an after-school program and, in the summer, a YWCA day camp.
He is the kind of figure who makes children feel safe. But when he was 20, he was arrested with some heroin and put away for two years.
“I paid for it and it never happened again,” Lawrence says.
A few years ago, Lawrence was a school lunch aide when a background check turned up his record. He was fired. The pharmacy across the street wouldn’t hire him as a security guard when he told them about his drug conviction. But when he went to local authorities to get a copy of his record so he could try to get it expunged, they couldn’t find it, leaving him in limbo.
But here he is, 35 years later, “on pins and needles; you’re afraid it’s going to come up.”
Salahuddin advertises with fliers he leaves at neighborhood check-cashing stores, beauty parlors and nail salons, at the Crown Fried Chicken around the corner, and pinned to the bulletin boards at local mosques. The flier features a drawing of a plaintive man in prison stripes, the ball and chain around his ankle evoking an Alabama chain gang.
Wornie Reed, former director of the Urban Child Research Center at Cleveland State University, grew up during segregation near Mobile, Ala. He says the situation is actually worse now across the nation than it was then in the South.
“An African-American male in Ohio today stands several times more likely to go to prison than a black male in the South in 1920, and the crime rate is not that much higher,” says Reed, now at the University of Tennessee.
At current rates, according to the Sentencing Project, which studies alternatives to incarceration, “one of every three black males born today can expect to be imprisoned at some point in his lifetime.” Many more, beyond count, will have an arrest record, which itself can cause indelible damage.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a bad situation got much worse. Now, Love notes, federal law mandates background checks and disqualifies anyone with a record from a huge swath of jobs in education, health care, child and elder care, financial services and transportation.
“To get a barbering license, a license to be a cosmetologist, a license to be a plumber or electrician in this state, you can’t have a criminal record,” says U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who plans to hold expungement summits in each of his district’s 23 counties.
The first three, in July, were held in Jackson, Greenwood and Greenville _ in churches, a setting that Thompson found fitting.
“For those of us who attend church regularly, a common theme that you hear from ministers is he who is without sin should cast the first stone,” Thompson says. “All of us have done wrong at some point in our lifetime, but we were blessed in some instances not to have been caught.”
In New Jersey, you have to wait five years after completing the sentence to expunge a misdemeanor, and 10 years to expunge a first felony. Once the record is expunged, you can legally answer “no” when asked if you have been convicted of a crime. But Love says that is not the case in every state with an expungement law. And in most cases, she adds, law enforcement still can access the real record.
Salahuddin, 57, says he came of age at a time when you couldn’t get close to a good-looking black woman without first answering the question: “What are you doing for the (black) Nation, brother?”
In 1994, he started taking the law classes that have enabled him to provide an answer.
“The Black Nation is not healing right now,” he says. Expungement, he believes, heals.
He charges a flat fee of $350, unless the record is complicated by multiple jurisdictions, to guide you through petitioning the court in the county where the crime was committed for an expungement.
“You don’t need an attorney,” Salahuddin tells clients. “You don’t even need me.”
But it helps to have a wily guide.
“I do it like it’s me,” he says.
It once was.
Salahuddin was 13, growing up in Newark, when he and his friends came upon an abandoned Breyer’s ice cream factory with “windows that just looked delicious to break.” Next thing it was “jiggers, the cops.” Salahuddin was the one who didn’t get away. “It was like I was public enemy number one. They gave me a record,” he says.
When he was arrested in his early 20s for being drunk and disorderly on a Newark bus, his juvenile record popped up.
“It’s like a shadow that’s always on you,” he says.