Operation: Restore Hope

Published 10:59 am Monday, July 17, 2017

JACKSON – The atmosphere inside Jackson’s Cultural and Wellness Center was a positive one. The second annual “Operation: Restore Hope” forum was held on Wednesday, July 12 as an opportunity to give people with criminal records a chance to move forward with their future.

“You could have been anywhere but you chose to come here,” said Tony Burnette, president of the Northampton County branch of the NAACP, in his opening remarks as he addressed the crowd of former offenders and family members in attendance.

The NAACP sponsored event was an informational session meant to educate people about their options in areas such as finding a job and getting their criminal record expunged, if possible.

The event was set up as a panel presentation and, afterwards, the attendees were able to talk one-on-one with the panelists. The panel included retired District Court Judge Alfred Kwasikpui, current District Court Judges Vershenia Moody and Brenda Branch, Northampton County’s Clerk of Superior Court Laquitta Green-Cooper, and local attorney Assata Buffaloe.

Each spoke about the importance of taking responsibility and getting back on track.

“Everyone wants life to be better,” Kwasikpui said in his opening comments.

Kwasikpui emphasized the importance of developing useful skills to work, and mentioned examples of people he knew with records making the best of the situation and doing well for themselves, despite their setbacks.

He also explained the basics of the process for getting your record expunged. Qualifications for getting the slate wiped clean vary depending on factors such as type of crime and age when it was committed. He reminded people, however, not to give up hope if they do not qualify.

“Be vigilant,” he concluded, his final words urging people to be responsible for checking their criminal records and making sure they know what information is out there.

Branch, the Chief District Court Judge, focused much of her presentation on personal responsibility.

“Let’s start at the beginning,” she said, giving advice about accepting and acknowledging mistakes. “You are responsible for your future.”

Branch spoke about how important it is to be as informed as possible, to have a mentor, and to present yourself in a professional manner, whether that’s in the courtroom or in job interviews.

In addition to more information about record expungements, Branch included a brief bit about “certificates of relief.”

These certificates are signed by judges to essentially vouch for the character of the person in question, and hopefully help people obtain jobs more easily and better reintegrate into society.

Following up on the previous presentations, Judge Moody urged people to take their time to fill out the paperwork correctly, and even have other people assist them and check over the papers.

“All the judges want to help,” Moody said, but added that they’re legally not able to if the forms are not filled out properly.

Green-Cooper and Buffaloe made brief presentations as well, both speaking about wanting to help people become as educated as possible on the subject so that they can move on with their lives.

After the presentations were over, free information packets about expungement qualifications were given to attendees and they had the opportunity to speak with the judges and attorneys present about their situations. Green-Cooper also said that the same info packets were available to pick up at her office as well.

“I’m glad we’re able to do this for the citizens,” Green-Cooper said after the event, adding that she hoped the presentations were beneficial to everyone.

“It was insightful,” said Kevin Stephenson, one of the attendees, and added that he learned a lot he didn’t know before. “Nothing wrong with giving someone a second chance.”

A second chance for everyone is the reason Burnette, his wife Brenda, and the NAACP organization put together the event. The goal was to help the community learn about their options and to not let mistakes of the past haunt them after they’ve already served their time.

“I’d like to thank the judges and attorneys and the NAACP members who came out to support the event,” Burnette said afterwards.

He was pleased with the evening’s turnout.

Burnette plans to continue the Operation: Restore Hope forum as an annual event to reach as many people as possible.