NEW ORLEANS — “I was just following the crowd.”
That’s how Trelvin Hunter explains why he started selling crack when he was 17.
It was a choice that marked the beginning of nearly a decade of living on the other side of the law.
“Eighteen. By the time I reached my 30’s, I realized this was still hanging over me,” Hunter said.
Hunter has a drug conviction from 1998. Then, in 2001, he was convicted for possession of a stolen vehicle.
He claims that time he was innocent, but now he finds himself with a criminal history.
“Upwards of 175,000 people in the state of Louisiana have a criminal record,”
Ameca Reali with the Justice Accountability Center said.
Reali and Adrienne Wheeler started the Justice Accountability Center a little more than two years ago.
The two Loyola law school graduates wanted to find the solution to the state’s incarceration rate, which is the highest in the world.
“The way the system is created, the odds are stacked against people without money,” Wheeler said.
The large majority of defendants who go through the state's criminal justice system are low income.
If they can't make bail, that automatically means jail time, even if the person is never charged with a crime.
“It gets worse when you know that someone with money has no problem getting through that system and moving on with their lives,” Wheeler said. “Why is that any different from the 80 percent of indigent defendants who go through that system? They’ll never get that back simply because they don’t have the money.”
Wheeler said arrests get in the way of job opportunities, lead to eviction and can even stop someone from being accepted into an education or training program.
Hunter said it affected major aspects of his life.
“It impacted my life a lot, especially dealing with my daughter, fighting for custody with my daughter,” he said.
The impacts of an arrest go beyond any time spent in prison.
“You’re still being punished,” Wheeler said. “It’s creating a caste system and It’s a life sentence.”
Hunter’s daughter became his motivation to turn things around. He was able to because of an expungement, which hides a non-violent criminal record from public view, though it’s still used by law enforcement.
But Wheeler and Reali said it’s a complicated and expensive process that can take nearly a year in some cases.
Even though the process for an expungement is state law, there’s no consistency from parish to parish. In some places you have to get your records or fill out a lot of forms, and in others you don’t. On top of that, the Clerks of Court charge anywhere from $360- $775 for the same process just depending on which parish you’re in.
“In some cases they are funding their offices on the backs of poor people who already can’t get jobs,” Reali said
Reali and Wheeler have consulted with about a thousand clients over the past year. Nearly half of them were likely eligible, but couldn’t pay for the expungement. And for the 18 percent who manage to get their records sealed, it’s still not a magic fix. Sometimes those sealed records can show up on background checks.
Wheeler pointed out that “employees can look like they are lying but the law allows them to say this did not happen, so it’s quite messy.”
Since expunging his record nearly a year ago, Hunter has gotten custody of his daughter, has a job and is studying TV production at Delgado Community College. He's grateful for his second chance, but everyone doesn’t have access to the same opportunity.
And Reali said that should concern everyone.
“I guess I don’t ever really understand when people say, ‘Why should I care? I’m not a criminal. I didn’t do this,’ ” Reali said. “But you live in this community and these people have to come back into our community and live with us, and either we help them get back on their feet so they can live the lives they really want to or you deal with the consequences of that.”