In Wake County, new hope for some with criminal records

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A new initiative by Wake County may give a segment of the population new hope for a better future.

One instance of bad judgment can have a lasting impact on person's life. But a new initiative by Wake County may help some of those people convicted of low-level crimes get a second chance.

It has been in the works for a few months now. Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said she is working to find ways to restore confidence in the criminal justice system from a segment of people in this community who feel they have paid their debts to society -- but feel society won't let them back in.

Arthur Fields, 32, is one of those people. He was raised in southeast Raleigh. He works at a Jiffy Lube in Cary. And, he's in the midst of a frustrating search for a new lease on life -- a second chance.

"Just an opportunity to finally start my life over again from scratch and do things the way I had intended before everything fell apart," Fields said.

Things fell apart for Fields in 2010. Police responded to a domestic disturbance call at his home. He insists he's innocent, but says he was convinced to enter a guilty plea in return for 18 months' probation and no jail.

With his probation served, Fields' finished his bachelor's degree in information technology and earned a Master's degree in business administration. But, finding a job with a criminal record, Arthur says, has been near impossible.

He says he's applied for 120 positions, just in the last three weeks, and came up empty every time.

"I've gotten acceptance letters from a fraction of those. But, then turn around and receive a letter in the mail saying, oh well... we can't have you because of this background issue we found in your record," Fields said.

So when Fields heard about the new initiative in Wake County to assist residents convicted of low-level crimes and misdemeanors to clear their criminal records, he jumped at the chance to stand in what quickly turned in to a very long line Monday night, to register.

"About 1,000 people walked through those doors," says Diana Powell, director of Justice Served NC, a community advocacy group in Raleigh. She says she was only expecting 600 people based on Facebook RSVP's. But word spread fast, highlighting the community's thirst for the program.

Powell's organization is one of several partners working with the DA's office to offer free legal help to residents. Their mission: helping people navigate the confusing and mystifying legal world of expungement.

Powell says it's about breaking a cycle that for many former felons can too often lead back to jail:

"That revolving door, they end up back in there because they feel like I keep beating myself, I keep running into this brick wall. I can't seem to get around or over this wall."

The response, Monday night, was so large, Powell's group will hold two additional registration events before a Sept. 30 deadline set by District Attorney Freeman.
Those dates and times have not yet been finalized.

After a group of volunteer lawyers review the cases, they will be presented at the Wake County Justice Center for expungement review on Nov. 12.

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