Last Wednesday morning Shawna Harris muscled her way off the bed she shares with her husband and three children, in the house they share with her mother and stepfather.
The 24-year-old, who lives in Henderson, didn’t wake up to an alarm clock; there was no job to go to. No job for nine years, apart from a brief Burger King gig. No job since her misdemeanor charge at age 16. No apartment to rent, either.
In North Carolina, 1.6 million people have criminal records, and 92 percent of employers conduct criminal background checks. Applicants with criminal histories are 50 percent less likely to receive a second job interview, according to the N.C. Justice Center. The problem is exacerbated for 16- and 17-year-olds; North Carolina is one of two states that charge them as adults.
When Shawna was 16, her mother was often strung out on drugs she says, and her father was gone. One day she and three other girls lit joints in the bathroom of Western Vance High School. Security guards entered with dogs, she recalls. She tried to flush the roach down the toilet, but it bobbed to the top.
Shawna spent two nights at the Vance County jail and was expelled from school. When she was arraigned without a lawyer, her interpretation of the judge’s message was that if she pleaded guilty, she’d only have to pay a $200 fine and perform 24 hours of community service, with nothing more to worry about.
Shawna was telling her story at a clinic at a Henderson library for people whose criminal records hold them back from getting jobs and housing. The room was jammed with about 100 people of various ages and wardrobe styles. There were basketball jerseys and Oxford button-downs, tank tops and sundresses. Three men wore Walmart lanyards. One, a Burger King apron.
The criminal histories in the room were as varied. Derrick Williams, a 37-year-old father of three, can’t shake a marijuana charge he got in 1997, when police arrived at his house in what he says was a mistaken identity search. Shonda Foster, a 40-year-old criminal justice student with the scales of justice tattooed on her back, is still haunted by a 1998 Medicaid fraud charge. When filling out job applications, “I feel like I might as well have murdered someone,” she said.
Daniel Bowes, an N.C. Justice Center lobbyist, explained that every arrest shows up on a background check, even if charges are never filed. Sixty-four percent of employers are influenced by arrests, he said.
Bowes asked how many audience members had learned to fear “The Box”the space on an application form where people with criminal histories go to die. Half the crowd, including Shawna, raised a hand.
Shawna had not planned to attend the clinic, but her mother, now clean and working at a recovery center, suggested that she should. Shawna was skeptical but had nothing to lose; the past year, she acknowledges, has been the lowest of her life. That morning she threw on a pair of sandals exposing her freshly painted toenails and drove to the library with her husband.
Shawna wore a T-shirt that said “Corestaff Services,” loaned to her by her husband. The pair met at a bingo parlor; he studied his board while she studied him. He got the T-shirt when Corestaff hired him, but he was fired three days later, when managers discovered his criminal record. He, too, can’t find work. When Shawna told him about the clinic, he decided to tag along.
Shawna didn’t know she had a legal problem until she turned 19 and applied for her first apartment. The leasing manger rejected her application because of her misdemeanor charge. She began applying for jobs. Prospective employers denied her, too. How many? “All of them,” she exclaims. She spent weeks trudging down Henderson’s two major thoroughfares, hoping her wide smile would overshadow her thin résumé. (Her only skill, she says, is jump-roping.)
She came close once, at City Trend, a clothing store. She sailed through her first interview and felt elated when she was called her back for a second. But that session lasted only five minutes. The shop managers had learned about her misdemeanor.
“The folks eligible for relief are persons who made a mistake and have been made to take account for that, but the consequences can still be devastating,” says Kari Hamel, an attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, a nonprofit organization that offers free counsel to eligible low-income clients and is the sponsor of the clinic.
Midway through his presentation, Bowes of the N.C. Justice Center said something that gave Shawna hope. In North Carolina, first-time misdemeanor offenses committed before age 18 are eligible for expunction.
“If I had known then what I know now, things would be different,” Shawna said afterward.
Toward the end of the day, Shawna met with Legal Aid counselors, who gave her a form to get her misdemeanor expunged. “This is my second chance no one else wanted to offer,” she said.
In two days, Shawna would celebrate her 25th birthday. As she prepared to leave the library, she wiggled her freshly polished toes. Each nail was alternately colored pink and red. She painted them that way, she said, to feel young.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Haunted by the past.”