Though it’s been 20 years since he went to prison for burglary, that conviction still hangs over Andrew Dawson.
“The way it is, the system, though you do your time, you’re still doing time when they let you out,” Dawson said.
The 60-year-old Yazoo City native has been a truck driver for most of his life. A few years ago he applied for a job in Missouri. He was qualified and the job interview went well, but he didn’t get the job after his felony record came up in a criminal background check.
Missouri, like Mississippi, is not one of the 12 states that have passed laws limiting how far back a background check can go. Those laws limit the time window for these checks to seven years, depending on the salary of the position.
Without any protections in place, a criminal record decades old can bar someone from meaningful employment.
Dawson says the word “felon” never leaves you.
“It’s a brand, just like you run a cattle through a chute and put a brand on it. That’s the same brand we get. That’s the same brand I wear today,” he said.
Now Mississippians such as Dawson have the chance to leave that brand behind thanks to the Criminal Justice Reform Act. The bill, passed during the 2019 legislative session, went into effect July 1 and radically expanded the number of crimes eligible for expungement.
Expunging a record is different from sealing a record because a sealed record still exists, whereas all traces of an expunged charge are deleted from the public record. Neither should come up in a job interview, however, as sealed records can be accessed only through a court order.
Previously, only a short list of crimes could be expunged: false pretenses, larceny, bad checks, possession of controlled substances or paraphernalia, malicious mischief and shoplifting. Now, all felons are eligible for one expungement as long as the charge doesn’t fall under this list of crimes:
nCrimes of violence
nArson, first degree
nTrafficking controlled substances
nThird, fourth and subsequent DUI offenses
nFelon in possession of a firearm
Misdemeanor expungements have also been expanded.
Previously, only a person’s first misdemeanor was eligible for expungement. Now, a person can petition the court to expunge a subsequent conviction after keeping his or her record clean for two years.
On July 26, Dawson was one of the many people who filled a courtroom on the third floor of the Hinds County Chancery Court for a free civil legal assistance clinic on expungements.
“There is always a need for people to have access to justice,” said Gayla Carpenter-Sanders, the executive director and general counsel of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project.
Access To Justice has free legal resources available for those trying to handle legal problems without a lawyer. The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project and the Access to Justice Commission are also working to schedule free civil legal assistance clinics for residents of all 82 state counties, as they did in 2018.
These services are welcomed by people such as Roy Nations.
“When you’re already poor and they’re garnishing your wages, you don’t have the money to get a lawyer, so this is a great thing,” Nations said.
The 59-year-old Brook-haven native served a year in prison when he was 20 years old for being an accessory to grand larceny. He’s ready to move on.
“It has hurt me with jobs. If I get pulled over, they’ll automatically say, ‘Well, he’s a felon,’ and it makes the whole thing a little bit harder to deal with,” Nations said.
Younger people are also hurt by prior convictions. Mary Gregory, a 23-year-old native of Pearl, got turned down for a position in sales at Big Lots because of a felony larceny charge she got in 2013. “I get judged as a thief because I stole once when I was 18. Five years ago, and people still think that,” Gregory said.
She likes warehouse jobs, so Gregory has her eyes on the Nissan plant in Canton after she gets her record cleared.
“We could probably do these every other month in Hinds County, and we’d get the same turnout,” Carpenter-Sanders said.
Another expungement clinic will be held at the Hinds County Chancery Court on Oct. 18.