"We need to convey how our local communities and our families are impacted when 70 million individuals don't have work opportunities."
By Rashawn Davis, CSG Justice Center
The Clean Slate Clearinghouse (CSC) Advisory Committee—which consists of legal and academic experts from around the country—works to make the CSC a mechanism to expand record clearance nationwide. The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center staff spoke with advisory committee member Michelle Natividad Rodriguez, the Deputy Program Director at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), about her experience with record clearance, her hopes for the CSC, and how record clearance fits into the broader theme of criminal justice reform overall.
CSG Justice Center: How did you get involved with record clearance?
Michelle Natividad Rodriguez: I started my legal career in San Francisco, working for a nonprofit litigating around education equity and employment issues. I joined NELP around 2010, during a moment in this country when record clearance advocates really saw an opportunity and shift in how criminal justice was being talked about. I wanted to devote my attention and resources to this shift, and moved from impact litigation to policy work at the intersection of criminal records and employment for NELP.
What inspires you to do this work?
I interact with a constant stream of inspirational people who are accomplishing amazing things. I can relate on a human level, because the everyday struggles of having a conviction record are struggles I've seen in my own family. I’m also encouraged by the many advocates who have personal history and contact with the criminal justice system—they are building important coalitions and are leaders in the record clearance field.
Record clearance often gets lost in the national discussion around criminal justice. How can that be changed?
Many people are focusing more on the “front end,” such as law enforcement, when it comes to criminal justice reform. But we have a vast population of 70 million people with arrest and conviction records in this country that are dealing with the long-lasting consequences of a record, particularly communities of color. We need to convey how our local communities and our families are impacted when 70 million individuals don't have work opportunities, can't get housing, or don't have access to the basics that help them thrive and support their children. So, anytime you're talking about criminal justice reform or racial justice, it's incomplete if you're not also thinking about the consequences of a conviction.
What excites you the most about the Clean Slate Clearinghouse?
We have a lot of work to do within both our own community and the broader community to really understand the benefits of record clearance. My hope is that we can use the Clearinghouse to bring the broader criminal justice reform movement together with those that have direct expertise and experience with incarceration to ensure that we’re facilitating the best strategic thinking on how to push this policy platform to a higher level. Moreover, developing a shared narrative on the importance of being able to clear records and how that connects to a thriving economy and strong communities are vital parts of the formula for success.
What other work are you and NELP doing in conjunction with record clearance?
We have been focusing heavily on fair chance employment. Specifically, we’re working on how we can ensure that policies such as “ban the box” and a wider array of best practices, including those recommended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 2012 Guidance on the Use of Arrest and Conviction Records, are used in decision-making for employment. We’ve also been providing strategic assistance for organizations at the local and state level that are trying to get a better handle on parallel issues to record clearance, such as background checks and occupational licensing barriers.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center staff spoke with advisory committee member Roberta Meyers, director of the Legal Action Center’s National H.I.R.E. Network project, about her work regarding record clearance.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center staff spoke with Peggy Stevenson, the director of the San Jose State University Record Clearance Project in San Jose, California. Since 2008, RCP has trained undergraduate students to assist people with criminal records throughout the expungement process. (Peggy Stevenson: second row, far right)
CSG Justice Center staff spoke with Advisory 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.
The CSG Justice Center staff spoke with board member Michael Pinard—the Francis and Harriet Iglehart Professor of Law and co-director of the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland (UM) Francis King Carey School of Law—about his thoughts on record clearance, drawing on his experiences as a public defender, professor, and co-founder of UM’s Reentry Clinic.