The Reentry Project

Inside a Philly criminal record expungement clinic: ‘Freedom is not just freedom’

Volunteers and lawyers help residents clear their records for a shot at better jobs and housing.

Sterling Scott meeting with Zane Johnson of Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity at the criminal record expungement and sealing clinic at St. Mark's Church in Frankford. Peak Johnson/Billy Penn

Sterling Scott meeting with Zane Johnson of Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity at the criminal record expungement and sealing clinic at St. Mark's Church in Frankford. Peak Johnson/Billy Penn

Sterling Scott arrived at St. Mark’s Church in Frankford with the same goal as his peers: to start the process of getting his criminal record expunged.

“My daughter, she attacked me and I wound up macing her,” Scott, 63, said. “I went to the police station to let them know what happened and shortly after that, I guess she called them and they arrested me at the police station.”

At the beginning of the criminal record expungement and sealing clinic on Tuesday, Scott was among 40 people who sat inside a small room of the church listening intently to the lengthy process of what they would have to do in order to get their records sealed or expunged.

Obtaining a person’s criminal history is the first step in the process.

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Both the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity and Community Legal Services of Philadelphia were in attendance. PLSE holds expungement clinics throughout the city that is greatly impacted by arrests with partnering organizations. While PLSE does not accept walk-ins, CLS does at their two offices — Broad and Chestnut, and Broad and Erie

There were few people, like Scott, who stayed for the duration of this week’s clinic and waited in line after to receive services and assistance with looking up his records.

Scott used to work as a building mechanic, but has since been on disability leave. He’s still good with his hands, he said, but needs something to fall back on.

“It affects me deeply if I can’t be trusted going into people’s houses or going into any facility where trust is an issue,” Scott said.

The clinic was facilitated by state Rep. Jason Dawkins, D-179th, who saw the event as a way to give people like Scott a second chance at life.

“I don’t think the system was designed to make it easy for those who may have committed a crime,” Dawkins said, “because those who make the rules or make the laws normally have not experienced what the backlash is of those who have.”

“What makes it uniquely different for me is that I was born and raised in this community, so I have a very personal introduction to what it feels like for those who have suffered going through the system and coming home and feeling like they are being blackballed in the workforce.”

Steve Blackburn and Wayne Jacobs, both founders of X-Offenders for Community Empowerment, an organization assisting formerly convicted who are seeking clemency, were also speakers at the clinic, and handed out informational flyers and applications throughout the session.

“I’m a commuted lifer; I’m still serving a life sentence,” Blackburn, 66, said. “I’m one of the few that were granted this blessing. I left a lot of friends, almost family. I mean I did almost 16 years of that life sentence. I spent a lot of time with the brothers up there, [more than] my own family.”

Blackburn was 24 when he was arrested and sent to prison for first degree murder. When he arrived home, freedom had a slightly different meaning to him.

“When I came home I found out that freedom is not just freedom,” he said. “You still have restrictions, you still have barriers so you’re not free. You’re not a returning citizen if you don’t have citizen rights. There are so many barriers to freedom. When a man comes home, he wants a decent job, he needs housing to get back with his family. These barriers are here and when you can’t do that, that’s a recipe for returning to crime.”


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