By Rashawn Davis, CSG Justice Center staff
The Clean Slate Clearinghouse (CSC) Advisory Committee, which consists of legal and academic experts from around the country, works to make the CSC a tool to expand record clearance nationwide. CSG Justice Center staff spoke with committee member Beth Johnson—Director of Legal Programs at Cabrini Green Legal Aid in Chicago—about her thoughts on record clearance and her experience growing a small legal help desk into one of the leading record clearance programs in Illinois.
CSG Justice Center: Tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to record clearance work.
Beth Johnson: I went to law school at DePaul University and my first internship was at Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA) in 2003. In 2005, when Illinois greatly expanded eligibility for expungement, clients began flooding legal service providers like CGLA because, for the first time, people with convictions had a chance to clear their records. CGLA began looking for a part-time expungement help desk coordinator and I knew right away that job was for me. The program absolutely exploded and we went from serving a few hundred people a year to thousands. The transformation that happened here at CGLA is one of the coolest things I have ever been a part of, anywhere.
How did CGLA sustain that level of growth and handle the demand for record clearance services?
Our expungement help desks became a new and exciting remedy that legal aid funders like the Chicago Bar Foundation and Illinois Equal Justice Foundation wanted to contribute to and attorneys from private firms wanted to be a part of. In addition, from increased engagement with lawyers based at private firms came larger giving to our programs on behalf of those firms.
How did CGLA build the credibility needed to become leaders in the field?
Partnerships. Right now, we have partnerships with 12 workforce development agencies and four violence prevention agencies, as well as employ staff attorneys who are solely dedicated to these partnerships. We also have our Leadership Council for former clients that want to be involved with changing state laws. Although we as lawyers handle much of the day-to-day work, it’s important to try to ensure that the voices of the affected populations are heard. Lawyers are only a supplement – not the focal point – to the needs of people who have criminal records.
What’s inspired you to continue doing this work over the years?
One of the privileges of doing this work for 12 years is that I’ve met literally thousands of people, and every person you meet in this work you connect with on a human level. The stories of resilience and courage and the ability to overcome adversity touches your soul to an unbelievable level. I’m honored to be a lawyer where I can help people navigate clearing the record that is stopping them from building a better future.
What do you think is on the horizon for record clearance policies at the state and national level?
There has been a huge expansion of our sealing statute in Illinois, and that gives me a lot of hope. All the members from our coalition have been active in the state’s capital advocating for these expansions and so much more. What doesn’t give me hope is that nationally, the work around pushing record clearance forward has been so piecemeal; we must figure out how to collectively work for equal opportunities after arrest and conviction on a national level.
Any advice for legal service providers looking to start or grow their record clearance work?
The most important thing to start with is building relationships with system stakeholders such as your local city or county clerk’s office. Then make sure you are utilizing partners to get the word out, and make sure people know about your services.