A middle-aged Middle Georgia woman thought she was finally starting over when she got her nursing degree.
She didn’t realize a misdemeanor shoplifting charge from 20 years ago would hinder her certification.
Faced with the prospect of returning to dead end jobs, she was referred to the Second Chance Clinic at the Daybreak center for the homeless.
“We were able to go back to that offense and seal that as a first offender,” said attorney Ashley Deadwyler-Heuman. “It has completely changed the game for her in getting a job.”
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In the shoplifting case, the woman was with a friend who actually took the items, but she was charged as an accomplice, Deadwyler-Heuman said. She was advised to plead guilty at the time and put it behind her, but it caught up to her.
“We look at it as the collateral consequences of a criminal record,” said Megan Tuttle, another attorney working with the Second Chance Clinic.
Every second Saturday during the past school year, Mercer law school students and volunteer attorneys from the Macon Bar Association met with those trying to prevent a criminal past, or dropped charges, from dragging them down.
In its first year, which ended with April’s clinic, they helped 103 people clear their records.
“Many of the people you’re helping may not have even been convicted,” Deadwyler-Heuman said.
Sometimes cases are dropped, but the charges remain on computer records.
In other instances, the charges might have been exaggerated.
In one domestic dispute, a man pulled his girlfriend’s ponytail and hit a wall, but he was charged with kidnapping with bodily injury, Deadwyler-Heuman said.
“Really now, that was not kidnapping,” she said. “You have to get creative to seal the record or change the charge.”
Macon Judicial Circuit Public Defender Lee Robinson organized the effort as part of his Recidivism Reduction Team operating in Bibb, Peach and Crawford counties.
A team of lawyers, social workers, investigators and administrators is working to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail and expunge records of those who are eligible.
“You’d be amazed at how few people are dangerous in the 4,000 felony cases that come through here each year,” Robinson said.
An offender’s past is one of the biggest obstacles to getting a job and starting over.
“The idea is not to send them back to jail if they can be a productive citizen,” Robinson said. “If you’re in poverty you can’t get on that path to success.”
Deadwyler-Heuman first got involved in the process during law school when she started working with the Georgia Justice Project in Atlanta.
“The aim is to actually reduce crime by working with people with criminal charges,” she said.
After learning of Robinson’s efforts, she joined his team and began coordinating clinics last fall.
“He’s just an amazing man. He so much wants to help and is so involved,” she said.
Robinson also serves on the board of the Macon Re-entry Coalition that brings together agencies involved in an offender’s starting over -- including probation officers, housing representatives, attorneys, educators and law enforcement.
Each month, the clinic can accept 25 clients referred from those agencies.
With expungement law changing continually, Deadwyler-Heuman says working with the clinic also helps attorneys stay abreast of ways to help their clients.
“If they’re a defense attorney, it makes them a better defense attorney,” she said. “If they’re a civil lawyer, it gives them an eye into a world they’ve never seen -- modifying a record or helping make sure they’re not discriminated against.”
Second Chance Clinic will resume this fall once school is back in session.
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.