Adrienne Wheeler hears a similar story from her clients every day.
“They’ve been applying for jobs for months and months and months,” she says. “They’re unemployed. They’re getting services from the state, or otherwise from family, from friends, from a church, anywhere else just to survive and it’s exhausting.”
But Wheeler is not a job counselor. She’s an attorney and co-founder of the Justice and Accountability Center. This New Orleans nonprofit helps people expunge or seal records of arrests and convictions for nonviolent crimes. Law enforcement and the courts can still access these records, she says, but the process offers something else.
“For jobs, because that’s really what this is about, the people who see us want to get a job and their employer has said I could hire you, if you could get this expungement, or they’ve been denied multiple times because of this record and they need it so they can get a job.”
The Justice and Accountability Center got its start in 2011, when Wheeler and fellow co-founder Ameca Reali were fresh out of law school. They wanted to make a difference in the city’s criminal justice system, and Reali says they zeroed in on ways to open more opportunities for former offenders, to help them stay out of trouble down the line.
“There was this whole area of the criminal justice system, after a person is released from custody or supervision, where no one was working really, or very few people were working,” says Reali. “And there were so many people cycling out of the system who needed that support that we could come in and help.”
On one level, the Justice and Accountability Center is trying to make the expungement process easier for eligible people to access and navigate on their own. Right now, that process can take up to a year and cost hundreds of dollars.
Meanwhile, the group also conducts hands-on legal work to secure expungements, and it operates a hotline for people seeking help.
“What we see is that a number of folks who can afford the process they can get to it very easily,” says Wheeler. “They can seal that record, they can make that happen, so the likelihood of coming back, because they can have sustainable employment, it decreases. So the folks that we see don’t have the money to do that, so it’s an opportunity that they’re not given access to.”
Wheeler says the issue is of particular concern for communities of color, since the existence of a criminal record, even for arrests that never led to conviction or for relatively minor offenses, can be used as a smokescreen for discrimination, disqualifying individuals not only from jobs but for some types of housing and training programs. That’s why the Justice and Accountability Center sees expungements as a way to put clients on equal footing for opportunities to move their lives forward.
“We want them to be able to re-engage in their communities and have meaningful lives, whatever that means to them, after they leave the criminal justice system,” says Reali. “If we can help them do that by getting them back to work, getting them into school, by allowing them to go back and live with their family then that’s success for us.”
Written by Ian McNulty for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. To learn more about the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, click here.