Before the young activist Umar Muhammad, 30, was tragically killed in a traffic accident in 2017, he had conducted 60 “Clean Slate” clinics across the state, helping thousands of people who were trying to expunge charges from their criminal records. Now, a new project bearing his name will continue that work. 

Muhammad, the father of twin boys and a newborn daughter when he died in a motorcycle accident, was a leader of All of Us or None, an organization that lifts up the voices of those most affected by mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. He first began working with the Durham-based nonprofit Southern Coalition for Social Justice on various reform efforts in 2014.

“His work was immediately satisfying,” Chantel Cherry-Lassiter, the Southern Coalition’s counsel for justice system reform, tells the INDY. “He had the personality, the drive, the dedication. He had a knack for making people feel hopeful and reaching out to members of the community they were trying to reach.”

That’s why the Southern Coalition is launching an online program named in Muhammad’s honor, designed to carry on his work and give people a second chance at life. The group unveiled the Umar Muhammad Clean Slate Toolkit in October.

Cherry-Lassiter says the purpose of the toolkit is “to empower people with a step-by-step guide to remove charges and convictions from their criminal records.” The idea is to make the process easier, cheaper, and more accessible to state residents.

“We dedicate this toolkit to Umar, who opened every Clean Slate Clinic by stating, ‘You are not the sum of your worst mistakes,’” Cherry-Lassiter said in a press release.

The organization made the toolkit public after Governor Roy Cooper signed the Second Chance Act into law on June 25. The law—which makes it easier for nonviolent charges to be expunged from North Carolinians’ records—goes into effect on December 1.

Cherry-Lassiter says that the group will hold webinars next month to explain how to use the toolkit.

“I have been wanting to do this since last year,” she says. “The governor signed it into law, but you still have to know how to do it. I wanted to help them through the process.”

At least two million people in the state have a criminal record. Prior to the pandemic, hundreds contacted Cherry-Lassiter each month wanting help.

A survey by the National Employment Law Project found that 92 percent of employers conduct background checks during the interview process, she notes. That background check often blocks people from employment.

“Better job opportunities lead to better housing,” Cherry-Lassiter explains. “To come to a place where they can get their record expunged can lead to better opportunities.”

Certain occupational licenses are unavailable to people with criminal records, she says. Some housing opportunities are also off-limits, including public housing.

“They can’t volunteer at school—not even the school of their child,” she adds. “Think about how that feels for a parent who wants to be there for their child.”

Thanks to the work of the Southern Coalition and their new toolkit, Jesse King may fulfill his dream of becoming a law enforcement officer.

That dream was derailed in 2003, when King, then 18, was convicted of felony crimes against nature.

He was originally charged with—but not convicted of—statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl. That charge was dismissed when his accuser told police she lied about her age to King, who was also a teenager at the time, he says. 

Instead of becoming a police officer, King lived a life marred by erratic decisions and instability: a year-long marriage that ended in divorce, one year of community college without graduating, and a series of low-paying jobs, he says. His weight ballooned up to 500 pounds, and he underwent gastric bypass surgery; other health issues compounded by his obesity nearly killed him, King says.

King, now 36, started to get his life back on track in 2009, when he enrolled at Beaufort County Community College and earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice. Then, in 2012, he earned a business degree from the school.

Late last year, King contacted Cherry-Lassiter, and she helped him file a petition with the Pitt County, North Carolina Superior Court to have his conviction expunged. A judge signed off on his petition, and with the conviction no longer on his record, he enrolled in basic law enforcement training, which starts in January.

But King, who still resides in Pitt County, was still worried that the original charge of statutory rape—which remained on his record despite being dismissed—would hinder his chances of becoming a cop.

Last month, he went online and used the new toolkit to petition the expungement of the dismissed charge, along with prior traffic violations. He worries that his paperwork may stall in the court system because of the pandemic, but he’s hopeful that the charge will be expunged before his law enforcement training begins.

“I could have given up,” he says.

“But something in my heart said, ‘Don’t give up.’”

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