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William Howe, 52, has had lapses in judgment and moments of clarity. He’s fallen and risen, stumbled and triumphed, but his life has too often boiled down to a mistake that has dogged him for 14 years. He broke the law, and it earned him a criminal record.
To look at Howe, with his sparse red hair and round face, one would never know that in 1999 he was arrested and later convicted for possession of narcotics with intent to deliver — a felony. Today, even with the associate’s degree in computer network technology he earned from Kaplan Career Institute, Howe’s criminal record is preventing him from finding a steady job in his field, he said. And that is driving him into poverty.
Howe is not unique. One in five Philadelphians have criminal records. With 122,000 city residents released from prison between 2009 and 2012, and the city’s poverty rate going from 24 to 28 percent over the same period, experts say there is a direct correlation between criminal records and poverty, because criminal records keep people from gaining employment. Advocates are pushing for a change in state law that would eliminate criminal records after seven to 10 years, but for now, most records remain in place for life.
“Once a felony is on your record, really other than the governor giving a pardon, it’s going to be on your record,” Howe said. “People are always going to be able to look it up and see that you have a record.”
But not just the guilty are marked for life. Under Pennsylvania law, all arrests remain a part of one’s record unless they are expunged, redacted, or pardoned. Expungement — the removal of non-convictions from criminal records — can cost the petitioner between $450 and $2,000, plus court fees. That’s a significant barrier for the impoverished. And felonies are nearly impossible to remove from criminal records in Pennsylvania, regardless of one’s income level.
Mike Lee, co-founder of the Philadelphia Criminal Record Expungement Project (C-REP), which works to help the poor to get criminal records expunged, put it this way. “Someone with a felony conviction, I have to tell them as an attorney, the fastest way for you to have this felony removed from your record is to die and wait three years.”
That’s because Pennsylvania law mandates only four options for having felonies removed. The first is to turn 70. The second is to die and have the charges removed three years after death. A summary offense may be eligible for removal if the individual has been free of arrest or prosecution for five years following the conviction for that offense. There is also the option of having the felony pardoned by the governor, but that is relatively rare in Pennsylvania.
The end result is that ex-offenders with few employment prospects come back to already overburdened Philadelphia communities. As Mike Lee of C-REP observed, those who are impoverished are more likely to have criminal records, and people with criminal records are more likely to be impoverished. It’s a seemingly never-ending cycle — one that appears to be worsening.
According to statistics provided by the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration, nearly 19 percent of those who returned from prison in the past three years went back to the 19121, 19140 or 19143 area codes in West Oak Lane, Olney, North Philadelphia, and Southwest Philadelphia. Though some of those areas are working class neighborhoods, most are largely minority and poor, just like the majority of the city’s ex-offenders.
“If you overlaid a map of poverty over the areas where ex-offenders are returning,” said William Hart, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services for Ex-offenders (RISE), “You would see that they’re the same areas.”
City leaders like Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez argue that there is a direct link between unemployed ex-offenders and poverty. That assertion is echoed in The Double Bind, a paper by Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity Board Chair Ryan Hancock, which was published in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change in 2012. Hancock, who also co-founded C-REP, wrote that those who’ve been incarcerated are more likely to be unemployed. And when they are employed, they earn between 14.5 percent and 26.4 percent less than those who haven’t been incarcerated. Because Pennsylvania law allows non-convictions to be displayed, those who have been arrested but not imprisoned are also affected.
“Despite being falsely accused or wrongly arrested, the fact that their information comes up in association with their name has been enough for someone not to offer them employment,” Mike Lee said during a recent expungement information session at the People’s Emergency Center in West Philadelphia. “That’s a violation of Pennsylvania law and a violation of people’s human rights.”
Still, there are those whose criminal records are the result of their own decisions, and the long-lasting consequences of their actions include decreased access to employment, housing and social services. William Howe knows that all too well. It’s a lesson he learned on New Year’s Day, 1999.
“Going down the way, somewhere down off Allegheny [Avenue], going and getting the drugs,” he said, describing the day he was arrested. “And then coming back to the apartment and getting surrounded by Bensalem police.”
Howe was charged with possession with intent to deliver. He took a plea deal that included nine months probation, but the felony conviction remained on his record.
After his arrest, he said, Howe got clean and has stayed that way for 14 years. He said he went to Kaplan Career Institute to earn an associates degree in computer network technology, but because of his record, he hasn’t been able to find a steady job in his new field.
Howe’s is a common problem that is highlighted in The Double Bind, Hancock’s paper. That is, while Howe has already paid the price for his criminal record, he continues to suffer collateral effects in his inability to find employment. This has wider societal costs, including losses to the tax base and financial strain on families.
“I’m behind on everything,” Howe said. “Family’s helping here and there, but they’re struggling too. I’m defaulting on loans — student loans — all because of the situation with my record. I can’t get work.”
Not everyone believes that the problems ex-offenders face are solely due to their records.
Hart of RISE said that for many ex-offenders there are often coexisting barriers to employment.
“It’s not just one thing,” said Hart, whose program has gotten 253 ex-offenders into jobs, 10.8 percent of those who’ve walked through the door so far this fiscal year. “If a guy’s got anger management problems, has no job experience, and has addiction problems as well, he’s going to have a hard time getting and keeping a job.”