Hundreds of thousands in NC will suffer if law on dismissed charges is repealed | Opinion

Last week, the North Carolina House passed a bill that would, among other things, repeal automated expunctions of “not guilty” and “dismissed” criminal charges. An expunction is when an arrest or a charge is removed from someone’s record.

These automated expunctions were a critical part of 2020’s Second Chance Act, and they provide a true clean slate for many people who have been charged, but not convicted. Now that opportunity for a clean slate is in jeopardy — meaning hundreds of thousands of people per year who have never even been convicted of a crime could suffer consequences such as being denied employment or housing.

Expunctions can change people’s lives. This spring I provided pro bono legal services at an expunction clinic hosted by Duke Law to help eligible individuals clear their records. These clinics are especially necessary, because the automated expunctions have been on pause since 2022.

Lindsay Bass-Patel
Lindsay Bass-Patel

Among the individuals I was able to help that day was a woman I will call Sarah. She was in her early 20s and had been arrested for misdemeanors, including possession of marijuana. I evaluated her case and determined that the dismissed charges were eligible to be expunged. When I shared this news with Sarah, she cried with relief. She was now free from the stigma of her arrest record.

Sarah felt like she could apply for jobs with a new confidence. She was ready to apply for an apartment without the dread of knowing the landlord would require a background check.

Unfortunately, pro bono representation is not widely available. And without automated expunctions, a person whose case was dismissed or found not guilty would have to petition the court to have their case expunged. This would create inefficiency that takes up precious, limited judicial and court resources. It would also severely reduce the number of people who can take advantage of expungement laws.

Many people may not even know that their records are eligible to be expunged. Even if they do, petitioning the court can involve hiring an attorney, paying hundreds of dollars and waiting months for a resolution. People with financial resources may easily do this, but low-income people wouldn’t have that same opportunity.

Repealing automated expunctions, as Senate Bill 565 does, could damage the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, in the three fiscal years prior to the passage of the Second Chance Act about 1,250 expunctions were processed per month. After automated expunction was instituted, that number jumped to an average of 56,000 expunctions per month, a huge increase.

Hundreds of thousands of people per year can benefit from automated expunctions. Hundreds of thousands per year would suffer without them, impacting their ability to access housing and jobs — having a ripple effect on the economy.

Our criminal justice system is supposed to treat people as innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law. But even an arrest record can follow a person for many years, damaging their chances every time they fill out a job or rental application. Individuals should not be penalized when our courts have determined that they are not guilty or when their charges are dismissed by a prosecutor.

Often, expunctions are framed as a “second chance,” because they give people a real opportunity for a clean slate. But for people not convicted, they are still on their first chance. The automated nature of expunging their record to allow them to function freely should not be in question. Our legislature should act to guarantee automated expunctions remain in place.

Lindsay Bass-Patel is an attorney and policy analyst with the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law, which works to advance criminal justice and equity. This column represents her views, not those of Duke University.