Michael is in his early 20s. A young black male, a bit reserved, yet once you get him talking you realize there is a promising intelligence and will to succeed lurking beneath the surface. Michael had come to my office because of a criminal conviction on his record. A few years prior, Michael had fallen into the impetuous teen criminal offense trap that I mentioned in Kevin’s story. Yes, he was now a “terroristic threat” because he had impulsively let his anger lead him to say something threatening about a classmate. Again, though, a terroristic threat? Really?! And now Michael had a criminal record, one that was preventing him from finding gainful employment. In fact, he had already started a new job when he appeared in my office, only to be let go after they got wind of his criminal record and until he got his record cleared.
Thankfully, Michael was one of the few that qualify for what in Texas is called a non-disclosure. As long as Michael had successfully completed deferred adjudication probation, he could petition the court for a non-disclosure. What this means is that if the court originally deferred judgment of guilt until after Michael completed probation successfully and Michael did just that, then the court could discharge Michael from probation and dismiss the charges against him. The non-disclosure would then essentially seal his record from most third parties, with some exceptions for certain government agencies. As you can imagine, deferred adjudication isn’t the prosecutor’s or court’s sentence of choice for most criminal defendants. Mostly it is reserved for lesser first-time offenses. This makes some sense. However, as most people end up with regular probation, even completing it successfully, or those who serve any kind of jail or prison sentence, under this narrow statute concerning non-disclosure of criminal records, they are pretty much out of luck.
But Michael qualified. Yet he had no idea. His criminal record, even though the charges were ultimately dismissed, stayed on his record, limiting greatly his employment opportunities. Thankfully, he found his way to an attorney’s office that he could afford. Even though they may qualify for a non-disclosure thus eliminating unnecessary barriers to gainful employment, thousands of people can’t afford the attorney’s fees or have no idea that they can do anything about their criminal record.
I share this story as another example of a legal system that sometimes just doesn’t make sense and is not accessible to millions of folks like Michael. Why not allow for more people to have their criminal records sealed from public viewing after certain amounts of time? Would it not be wise for us to give a young person a second chance, even if he or she did time or completed probation?
Surely we can all get behind the proclamation of Bryan Stevenson of Equal Justice Initiative, “I believe each person in our society is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
Now the question is, will we advocate for our laws and policies, human resources manuals and personnel policies, to express that same belief in second chances and redemption and human dignity?