Each Month, SC Appleseed partners with the Columbia VA Health Care System, Nelson Mullins and volunteer attorneys from across the Midlands to hold a free legal clinic, Lawyers 4 Vets, for Veterans in the Columbia area. Lawyers 4 Vets connects low-income Veterans with attorneys who provide legal advice and representation on a range of issues.
Among the many veterans assisted through the clinic in recent months, *James’s story stands out.
James is a great example of second chances. He is one of over 70 million people in the United States that have ever been arrested, charged or convicted of a crime. Like many of those people, he made a mistake early in his life that has followed him for more than fifteen years through background checks for employment, housing and education.
Thankfully, in 2018 South Carolina expanded expungement eligibility. When someone gets an arrest, criminal charge or conviction expunged, it’s no longer on their public record. Because more than 4 in 5 landlords, 9 in 10 employers and 3 in 5 colleges use background checks, for someone like James, having an offense expunged is important to improve access to housing, employment and education. Unfortunately, a person’s eligibility might not always be so simple, and that is what brought James to the Lawyer4Vets clinic seeking help.
In South Carolina, convictions for misdemeanors that carry a maximum sentence of 30 days and/or $1000 fine may be eligible for an expungement, provided that the applicant has no other convictions in the three years before applying for the expungement (this applies to most 30-day offenses but not all).
Generally, felonies are not eligible for expungement, unless the person was sentenced under the Youthful Offender Act (YOA). The YOA applies for folks who are under 25 years old at the time of their conviction and charged with an offense that carries no more than 15 years. What’s more, the new expungement law says that if you were convicted of an offense prior to 2010, and that offense would have been eligible under the YOA, that person can be treated as if he was sentenced under the YOA and their charge may be expunged. (For more information about expungement eligibility—the specifics for certain offenses and situations are complicated—please see South Carolina Appleseed’s brochure)
But even with this James still had a problem. The offense he’d been charged with is not currently eligible for a YOA sentence because now it is punishable by more than 15 years. And that is where the expertise of SC Appleseed attorneys came in. After some research, our staff attorney working with James realized that the offense carried a sentence of less than 15 years at the time he was convicted, which meant the YOA provision could still apply. This was the breakthrough moment.
Today, James can move on with his life to pursue employment, education and other things without having to check boxes that would eliminate him from those opportunities.
James’s story shows us that the worst decisions we’ve made shouldn’t define us for the rest of our lives. Yes, he committed a crime, but he also served our country. The mistake he made over 15 years ago doesn’t tell the full story of who he is.
After all, as many as one in three Americans have a criminal record. For something that impacts so many, it doesn’t make sense for punishment to carry on indefinitely after a sentence has been served. Many of these people committed nonviolent offenses, made mistakes when they were a young adult, or are at low-to-no risk of offending again.
At South Carolina Appleseed, we believe everyone deserves a second chance and we work tirelessly to expand those opportunities to people like James. April is Second Chance month, highlighting the ways a person’s life can be forever changed and improved by having a chance at a fresh start. We’re proud to be part of this work here in South Carolina, and so thankful for the many donors, partners and volunteers—just like you—across the state who make our work possible every day.
*name changed for confidentiality