By Ivey Schofield
After hearing that a 65-year-old resident had trouble finding a place to live because of a decades-old crime, Bladen County Commissioner Michael Cogdell began collecting names of other people with similar stories.
In 2019, he hosted community meetings about the possibility of putting in place an expunction program to wipe clean criminal records that often stand in the way of housing and job opportunities. But the coronavirus pandemic halted his efforts the following year.
“I had made a commitment. Everybody was excited and engaged. We were going to get some people cleared,” Cogdell said. “All of a sudden, it went kaput.”
Now, Cogdell is calling each person on the list he had compiled to share the news: Bladen County now can help with expunctions.
In partnership with the local district attorney’s office, Legal Aid of North Carolina now offers the services online and over the phone for free for Bladen County residents who qualify.
The nonprofit can help individuals clear their records, get their driver’s licenses restored and obtain certificates of relief – court orders that ask for relief from disqualifications for people with prior convictions who cannot expunge their records.
Ayana Robinson, the group manager for Second Chance Practice, a department within Legal Aid of North Carolina, said she expects the services will have a significant impact in Bladen County.
“We’re really trying to get the word out that second chances are real,” Robinson said, “and Bladen County is being progressive in partnering with us to get this started.”
The General Assembly passed the Second Chance Act in 2020, expanding expunction options. It’s now available to people convicted of lower-level crimes like simple drug possession and breaking and entering, people who committed crimes when they were between the ages of 16 and 18 who were treated as adults and people whose charges were dismissed or were found not guilty.
Since the Second Chance Act became law, Legal Aid of North Carolina has expunged the criminal records of more than 1,000 North Carolinians each year, Robinson said.
But many more could benefit from the service. One in four North Carolinians has a criminal record, according to NC Second Chance Alliance.
Advocates say many people who qualify don’t initiate the process because they don’t know about it or can’t afford it.
“Once you pay your debt to society, you can get your life back on track,” said David Powell, director of the Robeson County Reentry Program within the state Department of Corrections, which partners with Legal Aid. “But a lot of people don’t know how to do that.”
Cogdell said it can cost between $500 and $5,000 to hire an attorney for record expunction. That’s a major hurdle in Bladen County, where one in four residents lives in poverty. Many people facing traffic violations struggle to pay the fines and fees to get their driver’s licenses restored.
Legal Aid will offer their service for free to individuals who fall within 187.5% of federal income poverty guidelines. For a single adult, that’s an income of about $27,000 per year.
“Our county is poor and has many who would benefit from these three programs in the future,” said Allan Adams, chief assistant district attorney for Bladen County. “And if the citizens have the relief these programs provide, it may be an incentive for future employers and businesses.”
District Attorney Jon David could opt to expand the program throughout his district, which also includes Brunswick and Columbus counties.
“The criminal justice system should provide second chances to appropriate defendants under certain circumstances,” David said. “Sometimes years removed from a felony conviction, a person can experience the collateral consequences of the conviction in the form of limited job opportunities and reduced housing options. We need to provide a pathway forward towards productive citizenship.”
Cogdell said David’s office and Legal Aid don’t have the resources to call the hundreds of people on his list. So Cogdell, who recently came out of retirement to teach at East Bladen High School, said he has been trying to find time to reach out to everyone who might benefit from the program.
For more information about Legal Aid’s services and crimes that qualify for expunction, visit legalaidnc.org or call 866-219-5262, Ext. 2625.