WHYY is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented focus on the issues facing the formerly incarcerated Philadelphians. The aim is to produce journalism that speaks, across the city and across media platforms, to the challenges and solutions for re-entry.

 

Steve left Vare Recreation Center over the weekend with a big grin on his face.

 

For the better part of two decades, his criminal record has kept him from getting jobs he's wanted, even though he was never convicted of anything. 

 

In the coming months, that won't be an issue now that he's filed a petition to get a trio of charges — carjacking, armed robbery, and carrying an unlicensed firearm — permanently removed from his past.

"This is one of the greatest days ever," said Steve, who requested only his first name be used since he's working to to leave behind the criminal charges. "Just knowing that was there, was a burden on the mind."

Steve was one of several dozen residents who took advantage of a one-day "expungement clinic" hosted by the city in partnership with Community Legal Services and the Philadelphia Bar Association.

expunge cohen-8A man walks into the gym in at Vare Recreation Center in Philadelphia hoping to get his criminal record expunged. (Emily Cohen for NewsWorks)

The multi-site event also gave people the opportunity to file paperwork that will seal certain convictions from public view, including potential employers.

"By providing relief, folks are able to maximize their employment, which in this city, helps with our tax base, it helps us pay for our schools, it helps us pay for our streets, it helps us pay for our police officers," said state Rep. Jordan Harris, who was on hand at Vare.

Under Act 5, a new state law, minor offenses can be sealed with a judge's approval instead of a pardon from the governor. They include disorderly conduct, drug possession and drunken driving.

Residents can't take advantage if they have felony, first-degree misdemeanor, or second-degree simple assault charges.

They also must be free of any arrests or convictions for at least a decade after serving their sentence, have fewer than four misdemeanor convictions, and have paid all fines and costs related to their case.

expunge cohen-6Ex-offenders who meet certain requirements are eligible to have prior arrests and/or convictions expunged from their legal record and/or sealed from the general public. This can make it easier to get lasting employment and housing. These services are provided by volunteer attorneys and are free of charge. (Emily Cohen for NewsWorks)

It's estimated that up to 15,000 Philadelphians could be eligible for record sealing under Act 5. That's only a fraction of those in Philadelphia with criminal records. That total is estimated to be anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 residents.

Nate, who also requested his last name be left out, came to Vare hoping to clear or seal two charges he was convicted on from 2010: conspiracy to commit simple assault and a drug possession.

The charges have made it difficult for him to pursue a career as an emergency medical technician, his dream.

"Being here in South Philly, people get shot all the time. Even if you don't see it, you hear about it. Just to be on the front lines to help that person, maybe save a life. You want to do something. You don't always want to be that little kid that you were," said Nate.

However volunteer lawyers at Vare couldn't help Nate. Because he was convicted, he's not eligible for expungement. The charges also bar him from applying for record sealing under Act 5.

Nate said he now plans to pursue a pardon, a process that typically takes four or five years to complete.

The city-wide expungement clinic also had sites at Franics Myers Recreation Center in Kingsessing, Athletic Recreation Center in Brewerytown, Waterview Recreation Center in Germantown, Shepard Recreation Center in Haddington, and Rivera Recreation Center in Fairhill.