Adrienne broke the law: Caught speeding on her way home from work in Memphis, Tennessee, she pled guilty to charges of reckless driving and reckless endangerment.
Nearly 80 million Americans are in the FBI’s criminal records database.
Two years later, Adrienne had completed probation and paid her court fees. But the charges still appeared on background checks, so she could find only temporary work. The barrier between her and a clean record? The $450 she needed—but couldn’t afford—to seal her criminal record through a legal process called “expungement.” (Adrienne chose to keep her last name private to prevent employers from further discovering her record.)
The situation seemed dire until she stumbled upon a social media post about Just City, a new organization focused on criminal justice reform in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County, where Adrienne lives. Just City offers small grants to people in precisely Adrienne’s situation through the Clean Slate Fund, a public program that uses grant money to cover expungement costs for Tennessee residents living at or close to the poverty line.
Adrienne applied, and her fee was covered. Within months of having her record cleared, Adrienne, a single mother of four, had a permanent job. “We no longer have to depend on public assistance to live,” she said.
Adrienne’s dilemma—being unable to afford the fee that would help her get the kind of job that would allow her to pay that fee—is not unique, according to Josh Spickler, Just City’s director.
Nearly 80 million Americans are in the FBI’s criminal records database, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014. Even for those who are never incarcerated or who have committed only minor offenses, a criminal record can be a barrier to finding housing or a job. This is increasingly true as more jobs require people to pass background checks.
Advocates have pushed for changes to various policies in an effort to address the issue, from asking employers not to require job applicants to disclose whether they have a criminal record to developing more comprehensive ways to expunge or seal criminal records.
“States have this issue of having convicted all these people and saddled them with criminal records, and now they can’t get jobs,” said Margaret Love, a former U.S. pardon attorney. “But there hasn’t really been a comprehensive single solution.”
Love directs the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, a nonprofit that provides resources for and news about criminal-justice-related issues and keeps an online database of state efforts to restore the rights of former criminals.
“States have this issue of having convicted all these people and saddled them with criminal records, and now they can't get jobs.”
In November, President Barack Obama announced a plan to focus on rehabilitation and re-entry programs for people caught up in the criminal justice system. Indiana revised its expungement law in 2015 to limit the filing fee to certain cases and to keep records sealed based on the seriousness of the crime.
But change has been slow to come to Memphis.
In 2015, Shelby County had the second highest incarceration rate of any county with more than 250,000 residents, according to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice. (The city received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2015 to examine ways to safely reduce this number.) And Memphis’ new mayor, elected in 2015, ran on promises to get even tougher on crime and on the city’s young people. Meanwhile, Shelby County’s juvenile justice system is currently the first to require supervision of the U.S. Department of Justice, partly because of its discrimination against black children.
Shelby County’s current chief public defender, Stephen Bush, said that the lawyers in his office often don’t have enough time to appropriately handle each of their cases. And while the crime rate in Tennessee overall has dropped, Bush said the number of people who need his office’s services—those who cannot afford other representation—has been growing.
“People think of justice as an outcome, but it’s really a process,” Bush said. “And often there’s nothing in the community that’s actually helping to advance the cause of justice beyond the public defender.”
It’s not the public defender’s role to help people figure out how to get their records expunged or to introduce them to programs that help with the legal and social consequences of being convicted. This is particularly pressing for Memphis’ poorest citizens.
“One mistake shouldn’t affect the rest of my life.”
That is the situation Just City was created to address. The organization’s mission is to serve, advocate, and reform. Spickler, a former public defender, said he is optimistic that an organization like this can help inform policymakers and Memphians. “Memphis is big enough to matter and small enough to do something,” he said.
Just City’s most concrete work so far has been with the Clean Slate Fund. This program is one of dozens of similar ones around the country—some at law schools, others through legal aid clinics—but it’s Shelby County’s first.
Tennessee passed a law in 2012 that allows some offenses to be expunged. Love, the former U.S. pardon attorney, said the law is more developed than in many states. But the state still requires a $350 charge; Shelby County added a $100 processing fee. There may be growing awareness of this local issue: An article in the Memphis Business Journal last year highlighted the tie between high rates of unemployment and the high cost of expungement.
“In every situation where we’re paying this money, the person has been convicted of a crime; they’ve completed a sentence, which is sometimes simply probation. They’ve paid all their court costs. They’ve paid money already and done everything the system’s asked of them. Then there’s this indignity to saying, ‘You can have this fresh start—if you’ll now pay me $450,’” Spickler said.
The nonprofit has already paid for, or otherwise helped, 48 people to get their records expunged, Spickler wrote in an email.
Just City is still new and plans eventually to advocate for other policy changes, such as a lower expungement fee and perhaps a law that would allow more offenses to be expunged. Spickler has big visions for what Just City could ultimately look like. It is modeled partly on organizations such as The Bronx Defenders in New York City and the Georgia Justice Project, which help clients navigate all aspects of the criminal justice system. Spickler says he imagines Just City could eventually have a civil rights law firm or run a community-funded bail bond program.
Just City’s most ambitious goal, however, might be its least concrete: To change the conversation about criminal justice in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County.
“I think we’d be successful if we just had our community think differently about what happens when something does something wrong,” said Allison Gibbs, a program manager at Just City. “What happens when people a mistake?”
As part of that effort, Just City has hosted a series of events to raise awareness about certain unjust consequences of the criminal justice system. At an arts event this fall, people wrote what they thought made a “just city.”
In a just city, participants wrote, “There’s a second chance,” “A 13-year-old shouldn't have to pay a lifetime for one mistake,” “You are not the worst thing you have ever done.”
That’s a vision Adrienne can get behind. “I’m not saying I’m perfect,” she said. “But one mistake shouldn’t affect the rest of my life.”