Thurston Bryant isn’t accustomed to hiding his past. One of his first acts while wooing his then-girlfriend, Marlena, was to sit her down in his car and tell her that two decades ago he had robbed a bank. His reason: “It was just what everybody in my neighborhood was doing.”
But now the 57-year-old ex-bandit is wondering if he should be more discreet. Bryant no longer fleeces the establishment; he protects it as a security officer, and he’s up for a transfer to a new gig at a D.C. construction site. Getting the requisite police clearance wasn’t always a big deal for Bryant—his dusty conviction either didn’t pop up or his employers didn’t care. But security checks have gotten tougher since 9/11. “The procedure is more intense,” Bryant says. “I’m afraid it’s going to be a problem.”
That’s why, after seeing posters hanging around his Northeast neighborhood for something called an “Expungement Summit,” he grabbed his now-wife and booked it to the event at the Town Hall Education Arts & Recreation Campus in Shipley Terrace. On the morning of July 13, he and Marlena are squeezed inside the Town Hall building among dozens of other D.C. residents who want to blot out their indiscretions. In a nearby room, law clerks hunch over folders of paperwork, determining who’s eligible for expungement and who’s screwed.
Bryant holds a slip with “69” written on it. Nearly 500 ex-offenders have shown up today. A summit organizer barks, “Two!”
The summit, now in its second year, is the D.C. Public Defender Service’s way of blending the concepts of “criminal record” and “fun.” Balloons fly from the fence surrounding the building’s parking lot, which supports a tent city populated with summit workers; workers offer social-service info—how to register as a sex offender, what constitutes housing discrimination—as well as massages and raffle tickets. An ice-cream truck is plopped in the middle of the lot, where it churns out carnie-music standards. Cha Cha the Clown, in a yellow bow tie and watermelon-sized shoes, paints faces and endures ridicule.
The mood is less festive inside the building. “I’m hoping this ain’t no bushwa,” says Kenneth Carter, 48. Carter’s from Southeast by way of a North Carolina prison. He has a rap sheet with charges dating back to the early ’70s. Carter got out on parole last month and has been searching for somebody who’ll hire a “three-time loser.”
“My best thinking always got me in trouble. So this time here, I want to apply myself to at least give myself a chance in life,” says Carter. But his record has proven to be management kryptonite. “I’d always told myself I’d never go to a fast-food joint. I went to a fast-food joint. You know, for a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, stuff like that. Even they shot me down. It’s like, man, it’s getting kind of rough out here, you know?”
Some people think they do. In the late-’90s, the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project estimated that more than half of black men in D.C. between ages 18 and 39 had been arrested, convicted, paroled, or handed probation. That’s a sizable chunk of D.C.’s majority population hobbled when it comes to public housing, student loans, and jobs involving government, health care, and kids. “It places this very starkly as a civil-rights and a poverty issue,” says Judith Conti, director of the D.C. Employment Justice Center, “which is probably not very surprising to anybody who thinks about it for too long.”
Away from the hubbub of the queue is a door that leads to another door that leads to a hushed theater with a couple dozen people in it. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson is onstage conducting a hearing. The topic: how to reform expungement in the District. Laura Hankins of the Public Defender Service is testifying that a half-dozen people come into her office each day—about 1,400 a year—to see if they can erase old charges and convictions. “And because there is no comprehensive law on the books…our lawyers have to tell most of these people that they have no hope of sealing their records,” she says.
That’s because the expungement process in D.C. is topsy-turvy. People with an arrest that doesn’t lead to a conviction, for instance, have 120 days once charges are dropped to request their records be sealed. After that, the arrest begins to seep into their case file like an aging stain. Arrestees have to provide a compelling reason for waiting, and not knowing about the 120-day rule doesn’t count—though many people, especially those with fleeting encounters with the system, don’t know about it. Petitioners also have the burden of proving their innocence. That can be tough in cases involving little evidence, or evidence that has disappeared in the years arrestees spent being oblivious of the 120-day rule.
“The older they are, the harder it is to seal them in D.C., whereas in every other jurisdiction that allows for some sort of sealing of arrests, the older they are the easier it is to seal,” says Conti. “Which is common sense, right? Something that’s 10 years stale—what does that matter as opposed to something that’s four months old that might be more indicative of where a person is in their life right now?”
Then there’s the trouble with expunging convictions, which seems to have attracted a lot of people to the summit. In D.C., three adult convictions are open to expungement: kidnapping in the context of a custody dispute, underage drinking, and first-time misdemeanor drug possession with a sentence of parole only. Mendelson is proposing a bill to expand the number of convictions open to expungement—as well as loosen the arrest provisions—but ex-cons with serious felonies like Carter and Bryant have little chance of ever being clean.
“I know they ain’t gonna seal all my charges,” admits Carter, waiting for somebody to call number 150. “But I’m hoping to get some of my old charges sealed….Every time I was going back to court, they’d bring up my charges, and then when they bring up my old charges, that caused me to get more time: He’s known to sell narcotics or pistols, so this is all he’s been doing all his life….He’s saying, ‘Screw society.’”
Outside, ex-offenders hustle past the tents to get to a Gospel Rescue Ministries van. Marlena Bryant watches, impatiently sucking on a cigarette. After nearly four hours, Thurston Bryant has made it inside the expungement room. He’s viewing a record he hasn’t seen in over 20 years.
“I could’ve been at home sleeping,” says Marlena, 46. “But on the all and all, that’s the price you got to pay for doing something stupid.” Her consolation prize is a plastic bag of goodies she won in the raffle. “I’d rather for [them] to have kept this,” she says, looking dubiously inside the bag. “Hair products. Moisturizers. What in the world.”
Thurston Bryant emerges from the building. A law clerk told him he can’t get the robbery expunged, he says, but there is a slight chance he can get a federal pardon. The president gave out 39 of those last fiscal year. Bryant holds the thick pardon form under his arm.
“I may start on it later on this evening,” he says. “I may not finish it.”CP