On March 12th, 2010 a fellow homeless advocate and I co-hosted a meeting with the homeless during which they could learn about how crime expungement works in Washington, DC. We invited a woman from the re-entry program at the office of the public defender to speak to the group of about 25 homeless people who were hoping to get their crimes expunged so that they could re-enter the workforce. There were about a dozen other people present as well -- a couple of sociology professors and a few of their students, a reporter for DC's street paper (www.streetsense.org) and at least one man who wasn't homeless but wanted his single crime from 45 years ago expunged.

This meeting had originally been scheduled for February 12th, but was postponed due to Snowmageddon. That might've been a good thing after all; because, many of the homeless who would've come in February as an excuse to get out of the cold didn't come to the March meeting and thus avoided the upset which those of us who attended experienced. Though the room was reserved from 1 to 4 PM, the speaker from the public defender's office explained that she couldn't be there before 2 PM. So we found other issues to discuss for the first hour. Then 2 o' clock came and she wasn't there. Then 2 o' clock became 2:30 and she still wasn't there. The other organizer (herself a lawyer) and her lawyer friend had to call the public defender's office and have someone else come out. He got there around 3 o' clock. that's when things really got ugly.

Right from the get-go he explained that most of the people in the room couldn't get their crimes expunged. He told us that no felonies and only some misdemeanors could be expunged. He explained how someone could expunge their crimes (the few that can actually be expunged) and how to go about doing it. About 5 minutes into his speech, people began to walk out. I told him that they were walking out because they felt that he was just fostering hopelessness for those experiencing homelessness. The other organizer and a few other people in the room suggested that I not be too hard on him; because, he was just telling the truth. It was also said that we should pursue passage of a bill that was proposed by 2 DC councilpeople which would make it illegal for a potential employer to ask about a person's criminal past until after they are offered the job. (It was introduced and then tabled. Many Washingtonians were excited about the bill; but, the council has been silent about it since its introduction.)

There were a couple of older men in the room who were hoping to get their crimes expunged. One said that his last crime had been committed over 30 years ago. The other man who was in his 60's claimed to have committed only one crime in his life -- when he was 19 -- and that his singular crime was still being held against him.

At the age of 19, while in the military, he got into a fight and beat someone. He was disciplined but retained by the military and continued to serve his country. He finished his time and was honorably discharged. Now, some 45 years later, he attempted to purchase a gun. he was told that he would not be allowed to purchase a gun; because, he had lied on his application. As it turns out, a crime which he thought was no longer on his record actually was. Furthermore, he still can't get that crime expunged -- 45 years later with him having no additional crimes.

His story brings to mind at least 3 systemic contradictions. first and foremost, our national leaders can't solve problems without fighting.....err sending thousands of young men and women into battle to fight and die for them (the politicians). Yet, the populace is expected to solve its problems without violence. Secondly, the soldiers who come back alive are expected to renounce violence once they return to civilian life -- after being trained to kill by the military. Lastly, the subject of this story was retained by the military even after his offense and was allowed to handle high-powered munitions. whereas, now he can't buy a gun which amounts to being a pea-shooter by comparison to what he was entrusted with while in the military.

As if that's not enough, Washington, DC's crime expungement policy defeats its own purpose. One would assume that the purpose of a law that only allows very few crimes to be expunged irrespective of how many decades have passed since the crime was committed is to keep people who can't be trusted from acquiring that which should only be had by the trustworthy -- guns, jobs with much responsibility, the right to vote etc. However, this policy is keeping people from acquiring ANY employment in some cases. These people, in effect, remain imprisoned in spite of not being behind bars anymore. They have supposedly paid their debt to society and are now being charged interest on that debt. The only silver lining in this matter seems to be that, in lieu of recent economic troubles, the state governments can't afford to keep people in prison. Nonetheless, when they are released, the ex-cons are oftentimes not allowed to become full members of their society. Many people who are released from jail or prison end up in the homeless shelter, can't find work and then are tempted to return to what they know -- a life of crime. It would seem that DC's expungement policy is the primary reason for recidivism -- yet another systemic contradiction.


Anonymous said…
Thought you might check this recent story out.

Eric Sheptock said…
Anon, I posted your link on Facebook and Twitter. It was an interesting hearing. I was there for part of it.

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