Laureen Kickham needed work, so she did as requested when the temporary employment agency asked her to supply a copy of any criminal history report. That's when she was smacked with her past - a two-decade old felony cocaine possession charge that had been dismissed but was still there in black and white.
"It was on there, which was ugly," said Kickham, 48, of Charlotte. The temp agency "never called me with anything."
More than 1.5 million of North Carolina's 9.5 million residents had a criminal record at the end of 2010, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. North Carolina saw a 30 percent increase in residents with criminal records between 2006 and 2008.
But from 2008 to 2010, the total fell by 1 percent as legislators increased the opportunities to erase old criminal records. Last year, lawmakers of both political parties agreed to broadly expand the opportunity for adults to erase, or expunge, first-time nonviolent misdemeanor crimes or low-level felony convictions.
Now, more than 150 lawyers statewide are volunteering their services to give people a second chance, said Kari Hamel, an attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina involved in the ongoing campaign. They include dozens of attorneys from Duke Energy Inc., the county's largest electric company, and white-collar law firm Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein. Depending on what's needed in a case, their work is to prepare legal documents, collect sworn statements needed by a court, and even represent a client at a hearing before a judge, said Daniel Bowes, who has organized groups to identify people who qualify to have their criminal record expunged.
Changing laws and attorney activism come from recognition that even people who haven't been convicted of a crime face a harder time getting a job. The impact has been even greater since 2008, when the recession knocked workers out of jobs they'd held for years and forced them to look for new ones, Bowes said.
"Because we live in an electronic age, more today than ever before, it's become a scarlet letter that you can't escape," said Bowes, an attorney for the North Carolina Justice Center. "The vast majority of employers and landlords are running criminal background checks. And they're not simply denying the guy who committed a violent felony last year. What we see is that they're denying people with decades-old convictions or, a lot of times, for arrests where individuals were never convicted."
Hundreds of state and federal laws deny opportunities - including public benefits, occupational licenses, and child custody - to people with criminal records. But recognizing that public forgiveness also could boost North Carolina's economy by allowing people to compete for jobs despite long-ago legal scrapes, state lawmakers have been making changes for several years.
North Carolina required that state court clerks send expunction orders to law enforcement and all other state and local government agencies, where companies that collect and sell criminal history records get their data. Those companies must update their records by erasing what courts say must be cleared. This year, the General Assembly passed legislation barring an employer or school from asking an applicant to provide information about an arrest, criminal charge, or that has been expunged.
"The General Assembly has decided we're better off letting these people improve their lives. Because if you can't get a job, or you can't get a meaningful job, if you're stuck in a minimum-wage job, there are a lot of societal ramifications to that. I think we'd all be better off if these people were able to get better-paying jobs," said Garry Rice, an in-house attorney at Duke Energy. "Obviously as your income increases, a whole host of things improve for you in terms of where you live, your educational opportunities, your children, your health care, everything else."
Doing something that could have rapid and tangible benefits led about 70 lawyers, paralegals and other staffers at Duke Energy and Parker Poe offices in North Carolina to start donating their time and know-how.
There's an expectation that many more people will apply for expunction as news of a state law that took effect last year spreads. The law allows first-time, nonviolent misdemeanors and low-level felony convictions committed as an adult to be erased after 15 years if people are able to demonstrate "good moral character" and good behavior. Charges that don't result in conviction also can be expunged.
Kickham admits she was guilty in 1991 when caught with a $10 rock of crack cocaine in Charlotte.
"I was guilty, so what could I say?" she said.
She said she completed outpatient drug treatment and performed community service, and that prosecutors dismissed the possession charge. But it still showed up on her record. While studying to become a paralegal two years ago, she interned at Legal Services of Southern Piedmont in Charlotte and heard office chatter about the concept of expunction.
"I never heard about it in the community. I didn't know anything about it. I was in the right place at the right time," Kickham said.
She said she talked to legal aid lawyers early last year, who told her she qualified to have the charge erased. Her record still includes a DWI charge from 2002, but at least there'll be no more mention of a felony, Kickham said.
"If I do apply for another job, I can hold my head high and not worry about that," she said.