Second Chances? Not in Tennessee. Not Yet.

The prisoner,burden

We don’t usually offer personal insight or opinion on JustCity, but some stories, particularly those of injustice, beg to be told in first person.

I want to tell you about my drive home last Tuesday afternoon.

I get a lot of phone calls about expungement eligibility and welcome them all. Last summer, the Tennessee legislature passed a new expungement law that held promise for those who have paid their debt to society but still live with the stigma of criminal conviction.  It didn’t take long, however, for the new law to show its weaknesses.  The qualifications were so narrowly tailored, that few qualify.  For many who do, the requisite $350 fee stands as a final, significant barrier.  Tennessee courts have not seen anything close to the volume of petitioners expected by lawmakers.

Of the many phone calls I receive from people seeking relief , very few end with good news.

Which brings me to that drive home. I’d been swapping messages with two expungement candidates I’ll call Carlos and William. Carlos lives in Minnesota and needs only to complete the student teaching requirement for his education degree; William lives in Memphis and is trying to get a better-than-entry-level job for once. On that drive home, I had to deliver the same bad news twice.

Carlos is on the winning side of a long battle with addiction and poor decisions. He currently has the support of a church, his family and, most significantly, the administrators at the school where he hopes to do his student teaching. It’s his dream to teach, and he’s almost completed the degree that will allow it. However, during his days in Tennessee he was convicted of two crimes. Both non-violent. Both misdemeanors. Both more than 15 years ago.

Under current Tennessee state law, there is no provision for Carlos to have these convictions hidden or removed from his permanent criminal record. Ever.  In some states, many cases are automatically eligible for sealing or expungement a few years after the case is closed.  But not in Tennessee where Carlos’ record lives; though he has moved on and started a new life, he can never fully leave his Tennessee criminal record behind.

Even though his convictions are more than 15 years old, the fact that he was convicted on two misdemeanors makes him ineligible for expungement. So, they remain, and when I spoke to him last week, the university system says it will not authorize him to begin his student teaching despite the approval of the school where he would teach.

A teaching certificate and a full-time job with benefits for Carlos’ struggling family remain just out of reach.

TennesseeHere in Memphis, William is in his seventh year of paying for two mistakes.  His first mistake was trying to cash a fake $600 check at a liquor store more than six years ago. William confessed, pled guilty and was given an opportunity to have the case erased from his record after one year in the diversion program.

His second mistake was choosing to smoke marijuana, a drug that has been mostly de-criminalized in two states. He tested positive during a drug screen, and his diversion was revoked. He was never rearrested or charged with any additional crime, but upon the termination of his diversion, he was sentenced to one year in prison. He has since fully paid the more than $1,200 in court costs he accrued as a result.

But I still had to tell William that he does not qualify for expungement, yet.  Tennessee’s new expungement law is available for those, like William, with one, and only one, conviction for certain crimes… and with no convictions elsewhere… and five years after completing the sentence. William has one conviction, and it has been five years. But now, he has been told he must wait an additional year before he is eligible for expungement.  Then, he must find and pay $350 before asking for an expungement.

That’s one more year in which he will likely be limited to temporary, minimum-wage labor when he can find it. I hope he makes it. And I hope he calls me back, so I can tell him, “Yes.”

And I hope that one day soon Tennessee will make second chances possible for deserving people like Carlos and William. They desperately need it, and they are not alone.