Jermaine Wilson needed a plan.
He was behind bars in the maximum security wing of Lansing Correctional Facility. “Like a caged animal,” he said.
He took up paper and pen there in 2007 and began listing the way it was going to be.
He had God in his life now. No more drugs. No more “chasing the money.” He was going to get back to his 8-month-old son, Jermaine Jr. He was going to take classes in prison. Get out and start a life of service. Go to work. Start a non-profit.
Not on his list? Become the mayor of Leavenworth.
But Tuesday night, some 12 years after beginning a three-year sentence on drug charges, Leavenworth’s rising symbol of hope, unity and redemption took the center seat at the City Commission meeting as the new mayor.
And then on Wednesday, Wilson stood with Leavenworth County Attorney Todd Thompson, touting the prosecutor’s plan to help qualified ex-offenders get their criminal records expunged.
It is a beautiful message, said Wilson, who successfully had his record expunged in 2015.
People who have turned their lives around, who qualify under Kansas law to be candidates to have their criminal records erased, can get help from the prosecutor’s office and volunteering private attorneys to clear their names.
The timing of it all — as Wilson stepped into the mayor’s seat — shows a “city coming together,” Wilson said in an interview. “A city of hope that believes in second chances.”
Thompson had been planning for more than a year to put together a 60-day event to help rebounding ex-offenders clear their records. He’d also had opportunities to work alongside Wilson and see his Unity in the Community nonprofit serving Leavenworth.
Wilson was prodded by friends to try politics in November 2017 and rolled onto the City Commission as the highest vote-getter, earning the role of Mayor Pro-Tem.
When the commission met to resume its work at the start of 2019, the commissioners unanimously elevated Wilson to mayor, drawing a roar of applause and cheers in the packed meeting room.
“I knew he’d be a great example” to inspire other people who were putting criminal histories behind them, Thompson said. “I asked him if he’d like to help.”
Of course Wilson’s reply was an enthusiastic “Yes!”
People fall, Wilson said. He remembered the feeling when he sat in prison, exploring the Bible and seeing how “God used people who made mistakes.”
He read of the story of Joseph, who was thrown into a pit, sold into slavery and imprisoned in Egypt. But Joseph was a man of visions and won the affection of his captors, rising to the seat at the right hand of the pharaoh.
Once out of prison, Wilson made his life anew. He rejoined, and soon married, Jessica Wilson, the mother of his son. She had a daughter of her own and they had three more children to make a family of seven.
Wilson started a lawn care business while he began his public service.
Pastor David Walker of Harvest Christian Center International in Leavenworth saw Wilson’s “passion” and “natural love for people” as Wilson served in the church’s community programs.
The pastor saw how Wilson could encourage and inspire the struggling people who came to the church’s turkey giveaway events at holiday times. He wanted Wilson to do more.
“I always tell people to do something outside the four walls of the church,” Walker said. “”He grabbed that principle and he reached out to the world.”
About the same time Wilson had his record expunged, he started his nonprofit. Unity in the Community grew fast.
“God created us to work,” Wilson said, echoing the message he spreads in his mission. “Nothing comes easy or fast. You have to find yourself. You have to be willing to work.”
Not everyone can have a record expunged. The opportunities and the limitations are spelled out by statute in Kansas law.
Leavenworth County has created a resource page at leavenworthcountyattorney.org that supplies forms and answers questions.
With Thompson’s 60-day expungement event, staff in the prosecutor’s office are going through cases to identify people who might qualify, and Thompson will be reviewing them. Private attorneys are offering free services to help with the processing.
A judge ultimately decides on an expungement request. Anyone can always go to court and seek a hearing before a judge if they feel their record should be expunged under the law.
For those who qualify, “this can help finish off that bad action they did,” Thompson said. It raises the spirit of the community as its residents strengthen their opportunities for better jobs and better housing.
Most won’t become mayor, and even people who can’t expunge a past record can still take inspiration and rise up.
“Don’t dwell on your mistakes,” Wilson said. “Get up and move. If you fall, fall forward, so you keep making progress.”