"We can’t just legislate all the changes that we want to see. This is really about changing hearts and minds."
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 Roberta Meyers, director of the Legal Action Center’s National H.I.R.E. (Helping Individuals with criminal records Reenter through Employment) Network project. Founded in 2001, the National H.I.R.E. Network works to create quality job opportunities for people who have criminal records through public policy advocacy and technical assistance.
How did you get record clearance work?
I’m not like a lot of people who make the decision to work at a public interest law firm. I initially came to the Legal Action Center (LAC) doing administrative work. At that time, I didn’t know or understand the work the organization did for people involved with the justice system. I studied accounting and finance in college and had no interest in working with people, only numbers.
As I watched the staff attorneys at LAC and the work they did to support people who had criminal records, I got drawn into the policy work. It became really clear to me that many people are mistreated when trying to invoke their rights. I got to see that up close while I assisted the attorneys and paralegals on staff with cases. It also became apparent that I had family members in similar predicaments. So, it all came full circle for me.
So, record clearance became personal?
Once I started at Legal Action Center, it became very clear to me how members of my family were involved with these issues and could easily be clients of LAC.
My daughter’s father battled addiction and became involved with the justice system at 21.
The challenges he continues to face with his criminal history make me sad to this day. I also have a cousin who went to prison while I was headed to college. His story is very powerful: He went to prison barely able to read and was introduced to education while he was there. After his release, he was able to find a job and had an employer who pushed and supported his development. He went back to school, received a GED, and went on to college. He is currently working in IT and doing wonderfully.
There are so many people I know who are struggling with the collateral consequences of the choices they made in the past. Their criminal record, no matter how old it is, affects them today. Seeing people’s pain has really pushed me to fight harder.
What is the mission of the National H.I.R.E. Network, and how does it accomplish that mission?
The National H.I.R.E. Network was initially developed to create a national network of stakeholders who were interested in increasing job opportunities for people who have criminal records, of which record clearance is a major part. We continue to work with folks to strategize ways to strengthen their laws and build off of the reforms already made in many jurisdictions.
Recently, our work has centered around trying to identify the various access points and ways people can get criminal record information. We also work with employers and other employment decision makers to educate them on what the different relief mechanisms, or lack of depending on the state, are for people who have criminal records. We encourage these decision makers to be more thoughtful about how they use certain information for people with criminal records.
How do you approach record clearance advocacy?
We can’t just legislate all the changes that we want to see. This is really about changing hearts and minds. We want to limit access to records as much as we can, but we know that there are a lot of forces that we need to deal with, including people and employers who are adamant about access to information. We need to get people thinking thoughtfully about what information they really need and what they don’t, and go from there.
Why do you think criminal records often gets lost in the dialogues around criminal justice?
One issue is a lack of knowledge about criminal records and how they’re created, maintained, and disseminated. The public needs to be educated about these policies. If you asked 10 people about sealing, expungement, or record clearance, you would get 10 different answers about what those policies are. Many people believe that records are only kept by criminal justice agencies and do not understand the nuances of how those records are accessed and disseminated. Even people who work within the criminal justice system don’t always get it. We have a lot of work to do to educate people about what the opportunities are and what decreasing access to criminal records means for public safety and for a person trying to successfully live as a member of society. That conversation just isn’t happening yet, so we have to make sure record clearance is included in the full continuum of dialogue about how the justice system affects people’s lives.
What excites you about being a part of the Clean Slate Clearinghouse’s advisory committee?
I’m always a fan of building coalitions and networks. In the advisory committee for the Clean Slate Clearinghouse, I see a network of folks who not only care about record clearance but care about people having the opportunity to fully participate in society and live a productive life, people who have the ability to vote, work, pay taxes, earn a degree, and support their family and community. Whenever a network is built, we can leverage our knowledge and relationships with each other and, by doing so, can be much more proactive and supportive in our work to shape policies across the country.
The Clearinghouse is amazing and necessary. It’s going to be useful and helpful for people, and anything that’s going to be helpful for my people, I want to be involved in. It was no question for me to accept the invitation to serve.
What is your hope for the record clearance field in 5 to 10 years from now?
My hope is that we can address collateral consequences so that we don’t even have to talk about record clearance anymore. We need to stop branding, labeling, and punishing people indefinitely. We need to get people to be more thoughtful about the fact that we’ve created layers of punishment that last a lifetime, and that’s not alright.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
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)
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).
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.