Leslie Vass spent 10 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
The story he tells about how the police, the courts and entire criminal justice system failed him is alarming.
But what has happened to Vass after he was finally released and pardoned by Maryland’s governor for the state’s gross mistakes may be worse. He carries that letter, signed in 1986 by then Governor Harry Hughes. “I would like to express my sincere regret for the terrible injustice you have suffered,” the Governor wrote. “It must have been devastating to spend 10 precious years in jail for a crime which you did not commit.”
Ever since he was freed in 1986, Vass—an innocent man— has been haunted by the erroneous charges that still exist on his record, even today.
For more than 25 years, Vass has fought to have his record expunged, wiped clean, so that no trace of the arrest or wrongful conviction remains. He has gone to great lengths, even suing the state and winning a small sum.
He has written letters, won multiple court orders and enlisted the help of top legal minds, advocates and elected officials. But his record has never been expunged.
As a result, Vass has been unable to find and keep steady employment. It doesn’t matter that he is innocent of the armed robbery he was accused of committing when he was 17 and charged as an adult. Employers dig up the decades-old charges—all of which have been proven false—during background checks and label him as a criminal, refusing to hire him. In 2004, the charges came back to destroy what semblance of a life Vass had managed to piece together. He was falsely accused of involvement in a stabbing and ultimately acquitted of all the charges. But his trial didn’t come until after Vass had served a year in jail, awaiting trial. His prior conviction—despite his innocence of that crime—was used as the basis to hold him without bail.
“The same criminal record that the state paid me the compensation for, the same criminal record that Jet magazine did a story on, that same record kept coming up,” Vass says today. “So they could hold me for a year without bail, because they said I had a prior criminal record.”
It didn’t take long for a jury to find Vass not guilty of all charges. But the damage was irrevocable.
“The next morning I was released, but the job I had held in the state was gone, my house was gone, and my children were still in foster care,” Vass says. “I had to start all over again.”
Monique Dixon, director of OSI-Baltimore’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice program, says Vass’s story touches on many aspects of the work OSI-Baltimore and its grantees are so invested in.
“Leslie’s case is an example of the failure of the criminal justice system at each and every stage,” Dixon says. “As a 17-year-old boy, he was charged and convicted as an adult for a crime he did not commit, was found innocent a decade later, completely exonerated, compensated by the state, petitioned the state to expunge the wrongful conviction, and was ready to move on with his life, but now at age 55, he can’t because his conviction was improperly expunged. It shows that, even if you’re innocent, once you’re in the system, it’s hard to get out of it. That’s one reason why it’s so important to us that young people don’t get caught up in the system in the first place.”
Vass is now working with a new attorney to try to expunge his records, once and for all. And he is working with OSI-Baltimore grantees to end the prosecution of youth as adults.
He is hopeful that, by telling his story repeatedly, what happened to him won’t happen to anyone else.
“I had high expectations of trying to move forth with my life,” Vass says. “But now I’m 55 years old. I’m living in public housing, and I’m still trying to pick up the pieces. But you know what? I’m not bitter. What I would like is for my case to be a stepping stone to help others.”
For many of Baltimore’s formerly incarcerated residents, shaking the stigma of time spent in prison is a major undertaking. One of the hardest aspects is finding stable, meaningful employment.
The Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF)—a long-time OSI-Baltimore grantee—is working to change that.
JOTF is a nonprofit that works to develop and advocate policies and programs to increase the skills, opportunities and incomes of low-skill, low-income workers and job seekers. With help from OSI-Baltimore and others, JOTF has worked hard to improve employment opportunities in the region, in particular for those with criminal records.
“Seventy-five percent of the population we deal with has a criminal background,” says Jason Perkins-Cohen, JOTF’s executive director. “Having a record is a huge barrier to getting a job. That record stays with you forever. ” To help, JOTF has spent considerable time and effort working to improve the state’s expungement policies.
Expungement is the removal of court and police records from public inspection. When records are expunged—a process that usually happens at the request of a petitioner—those records should become inaccessible and not available to use against a person. But the process is flawed.
It’s expensive to petition for expungement and time- consuming, sometimes requiring a lawyer’s help. Yet, even with the legal assistance, sometimes records are often only partially removed, or sometimes not at all.
“It used to be that you could be arrested and released—not even charged—and that would stay on your record,” Perkins-Cohen says. “So we got a law passed that all arrests without charges are automatically expunged.” Passed in 2007, the law ensures that, when someone is not charged with a crime, the arrest does not negatively affect his or her employment prospects. And since the process is automatic, there is no cost or paperwork required.
Since then, however, advocates at JOTF have been working to protect the employment prospects of people who have been convicted of a crime by gathering the stories of dozens of individuals whose criminal records have prevented them from finding employment. It is JOTF’s hope that these stories will persuade policy makers to permit the expungement of felonies and misdemeanors that occurred many years before.
“One person we were working with was convicted of trespassing when he was in his 20s. He was trying to get a construction job and the employer’s view was that it didn’t matter how old the conviction was, he would not hire him,” Perkins-Cohen says. “Never mind that he was in his 20s, just goofing around with friends, and now he’s in his 30s, trained and ready to go to work.”
But expanding the expungement law has been met with much opposition, especially from employer groups that are concerned about not initially seeing full documentation. And many in the criminal justice community have fought the idea, arguing that they should have access to individuals’ past charges in order to properly do their jobs. JOTF is urging policy makers to support a “shielding” practice, which would hide old records from the general public but allow lawyers, police officers and judges to see them.
“Criminal records were made for the criminal justice system,” Perkins-Cohen says. “But ordinary people request background checks and use the information in really inappropriate ways. Landlords, for instance, deny people housing because of a past charge. So this law would “shield” nonviolent misdemeanors from the view of the public. Three years after a conviction, employers, landlords and people on the Internet would not have access to it.”
The shielding bill put before the legislature in the 2013 session failed, but JOTF will continue to work on this important issue in 2014.
Expungement and shielding are important ways to help formerly incarcerated people secure and keep steady, well-paying jobs, which can keep them from becoming repeat offenders, Perkins-Cohen says. “Many people who have been in prison are doing their best to keep their heads above water, and being held up by something in their past is just devastating to them,” he says. “It is discouraging to think you might never get a job if this [conviction] is just going to follow me around.”