While thousands of volunteers fanned out across the region Monday to spruce up forlorn places to mark Martin Luther King Day, about 100 people gathered at West Philadelphia's Shepard Recreation Center to learn how to clean up their own backyards — that is, their criminal records.
Leon Sullivan was among them. Twenty-eight years ago, he was charged with possession of a weapon when police found a gun in his car during a traffic stop. He maintains that the stop and search of his car were illegal, and that the gun was not in plain sight as the police claimed. Nevertheless, Sullivan said, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and served a probationary sentence.
He thought he'd moved on with his life until years later it dawned on him that the conviction from the 1980s still loomed large over his present and future.
"I want this off my record. It's held me back from jobs and moving forward in my career," said Sullivan, 54, of West Philadelphia, a real estate investor who also manages the records department of the University of Pennsylvania Health System. He began working for Penn 30 years ago — two years before his arrest — and wonders whether he could have moved on to a more lucrative job if not for the conviction.
"I was pretty much stuck in this job that I had at the time of the incident. Just pretty much stuck there," said Sullivan, who serves as the 34th Ward Democratic committeeman. "I didn't harm anyone. I didn't commit any violent acts. I just want this off my record."
MLK Day gave Sullivan the chance to get some guidance in how to do that. He went to the rec center at 5700 Haverford Ave. for a three-hour workshop, "Pathways to Pardons and Expungement," hosted by State Rep. Morgan Cephas and Lt. Gov. Mike Stack.
He learned about processes for getting a criminal record expunged or sealed, getting a pardon, and how those who are incarcerated can get sentence commutations. The elected officials and others also gave words of inspiration to an audience composed largely of folks who have struggled financially for years under the weight of their criminal records.
"Martin Luther King talked about equality so that we all have an equal playing field," said Cephas, who told the audience that her father had served five years in prison and had a hard time finding work after he was released. "Today represents the need to move the needle … so you are not wearing the scarlet letter and you can get the job that you need."
"Everybody makes mistakes," said Stack, a member of the state Board of Pardons. "I'm about more than second chances. I'm about third chances, fourth chances, if you've shown that now you've got it right and you understand. … The key thing is we want everyone to have a clear record."
Radee Hammett, 35, who spent four years in prison until November 2016 for DUI and drug possession, said he was glad he spent MLK Day at the workshop. "You don't know what's coming your way, whether it's a job offer or somebody who can offer you better employment than what you have. Your past might come up, so it's good to get that clear now so that in the future it won't limit you from being more successful than where you are now," said Hammett, a painter who has started a nonprofit agency to help people recently released from prison.
Sullivan was advised by Zane Johnson of Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity that his best option would be to seek a limited access order to have his criminal record sealed to prevent prospective employers from seeing his conviction. Johnson told him that because of his conviction Sullivan would first have to get a pardon before he could seek an expungement of his record, which could take years.
Sullivan was satisfied.
"Pardon, expungement," he said. "Anything to get the job done to remove something off the record that was done 30 years ago that is holding people like myself back from moving forward with their lives."