Chicago Hosts Second Chance Hiring Event

In celebration of Second Chance Month 2021, The Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership (The Partnership) hosted a one-of-a-kind virtual event to discuss the business case for “second chance” hiring: “A Hire Calling.” The event featured nationally known CEOs and people who have created thriving careers post-incarceration and included the premiere of “The Road Home,” a short feature video and a “fireside chat” featuring “second chance” expert and author Jeff Korzenik and Master of Ceremonies David Snyder, CEO and President of Economic Club of Chicago President. The Partnership’s CEO and host, Karin M. Norington-Reaves, opened the event by setting the stage for the unique, important dialogue and presentation:

“Data shows that 60% of people incarcerated in Illinois return to 15 communities in Cook County and 12 zip codes in Chicago. The need to ensure that these individuals receive access to resources, including employment training and job placement, is more critical than ever before.”

The Partnership, the non-profit organization that operates the largest public workforce network in the nation, serves Chicago and Cook County. In collaboration with Cook County’s Justice Advisory Council (JAC), The Partnership created the Cook County Coordinated Reentry Council and held eight months of convenings resulting in recommendations for systemic changes to the region’s reentry system. This effort includes The Reentry Navigation Initiative: The Road Home, a 22-month demonstration project intended to address people’s holistic needs upon returning to Cook County from incarceration in Illinois’ penal institutions. This initiative includes an emphasis on workforce development, occupational training, and permanent unsubsidized job placement.

Learn more about the Partnership’s “A Hire Calling” events and efforts to increase second chance hiring

Public Defender Rethinks Lawyers’ Role in Record Clearance

by Rashawn Davis, CSG Justice Center Staff 

Damon Parrish II is an assistant public defender with the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in Houston, Texas.

When Damon Parrish began studying at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, he had no interest in eventually practicing criminal law. With a background in computer science, he was much more interested in intellectual property—that is, until he interned with the Harris County (TX) District Attorney’s Office. There, he saw firsthand the lasting negative effects a criminal record could have on a person’s life.

“You don’t want to have someone’s entire life to be, ‘at 21, I committed robbery, and now I am 48 and still paying for it,’” he said. “You don­­’t want that, an­­d it’s not fair or good for society.”

After a brief stint in private practice, Parrish joined the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, where he is an assistant public defender. He also volunteers providing indigent defense in communities around the county. As a volunteer lawyer, he meets clients attempting to seal their criminal records—which sometimes include only a single charge or conviction that is, in some cases, more than 20 years old. Parrish says it’s rewarding to watch clients who are able to have their criminal records sealed. Some of those clients have gone on to have successful careers, something he acknowledges can be difficult to achieve with a criminal record.

“I was able to see how they were able to continue forth with their lives and earn college degrees,” he remembers.

The impact of criminal record clearance became clear in Parrish’s personal life as well as in his work. Soon after joining the public defender’s office, he learned that a close friend had been arrested at 18 and was able to have their record expunged. That friend has now become a successful accountant.

“But,” Parrish says. “He had the benefit of having his record cleared.”

Not everyone who has a criminal record may have the option to clear it once the case has been resolved—many people accept a plea deal or case resolution that could make their record ineligible for clearance in the future. Parrish considers understanding which charges and case resolutions are potentially eligible for clearance part of his responsibility as a defense attorney.

“Primarily, [my] goal is to secure an outcome for my client that is beneficial. And when I say that, I don’t just mean ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty,’ but something that helps them not have their entire life be representative of this one particular issue,” he states.

However, even when people are eligible for record clearing, it’s not always pursued. Often, Parrish acknowledges, financial constraints pressure clients to focus on short-term goals like getting out of the courtroom and back to work instead of the long-term goal of clearing the criminal record.

“When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, your immediate goal is not record clearing but being done with this and [being] able to get back to work,” he explains.

The record clearance process can be costly as well as time consuming. In addition to statutory fees, the process can include hiring an attorney separate from the one that litigated your defense to guide you through clearance. This often creates an even greater financial burden for the client to take on. And while some legal service organizations may offer free or discounted services for record clearance, these resources may be limited. Additionally, the clearance process involves many complex steps, something Parrish says also discourages clients from pursuing their expungement or sealing options.

For Parrish, these burdens are especially harsh for people whose charges have been dismissed or who were found not guilty. In cases such as these, he says, pertinent charges should be cleared from the person’s record automatically.

Parrish is optimistic about the future of criminal record clearance in Texas from watching the experiences of his clients. Fueling that optimism is the fact that legislators around the country are beginning to have substantive dialogues about reforming criminal justice systems, specifically regarding record clearance. Parrish also looks forward to expanding record clearance programming locally through his work at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office.

Parrish believes public defenders will play a critical role in expanding record clearance by informing policymakers about the effects it has on recidivism and outcomes. This is particularly due to public defenders’ deep knowledge of the criminal justice system, the people involved in it, and communities impacted by it.

Someday, he expects, policies around clearance will include a broader set of offenses eligible for record clearance, as well as automatic implementation of that clearance, which will make record clearance more accessible for those eligible for it.

Or, as he puts it, “the law will catch up.”

The statements made reflect the views of the subject and authors and should not be considered the official position of The Council of State Governments Justice Center, members of The Council of State Governments, or the funding agency supporting the work.

Webinar: Facts and Myths: Health Care Employment Opportunities for People with Criminal Records

Hosted by the National Reentry Resource Center with funding support from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance

Health care is one of the fastest-growing employment sectors in the country, with the demand for qualified workers greatly exceeding supply in many areas. But people who have criminal records are often unable to enter or advance within this relatively high-paying sector due to a complex web of legal barriers that make jobs and licenses difficult or impossible to obtain.

This webinar separates the myths from the facts about these barriers in order to develop a better understanding of the true scope and impact of employment-related collateral consequences in the health care sector.

In the webinar, presenters:

  • Provide an overview of the state and federal laws and policies that limit health care employment opportunities for people with criminal records
  • Discuss what health care employers are doing to expand opportunities for workers with criminal records and examine the impact those efforts have had on their workforce
  • Present models for cooperation between reentry service providers and health care employers that are aimed at placing qualified workers with criminal records in stable jobs in the sector

Panelists include:

  • Reginald Allen, Talent Acquisition Consultant, Mission-Based Programs, AMITA Health System
  • Josh Gaines, Senior Policy Analyst, The Council of State Governments Justice Center
  • Sofi Martinez, Social Science Analyst, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Sodiqa R. Williams, Esq., General Counsel and Vice President, External Affairs, Safer Foundation

Trending Topics: How Process Affects Access to Record Clearance

By CSG Justice Center Staff

For the millions of people who have criminal and juvenile delinquency records in states across the U.S., record clearance can improve access to employment, housing, and education, among other benefits. But while every state allows some records to be cleared, the process varies depending on the state, the charges, and the type of information involved. In most situations, the person with a record has to file a petition in the court where the case was heard. In other circumstances, a judge has the power to clear a record without first receiving a petition. Where the process is more burdensome, fewer eligible people succeed in getting their records cleared.

In some cases, however, records c­­­an be cleared automatically—meaning that clearance occurs according to a procedure laid out in state law, without a petition by the person with a record or any review by a judge or prosecutor. Automatic record clearance is an efficient process, as it requires very little effort by court personnel, meaning it saves tax dollars. It also saves those who are eligible the time, effort, and expense involved in getting legal advice, filing a petition, paying a fee, and appearing in court. Below is an overview of the processes states use to clear records and the effect these processes have on how many people can access the benefits of record clearance.

Petition-based clearance

Petition-based record clearance involves filing a petition, and often paying a fee, usually in the court that originally handled the case. In some states, even before filing a petition in court, a person must get a certificate of eligibility to begin the record clearance process. For instance, in Florida, a person seeking to seal or expunge a record of arrest must first apply to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for a certificate of eligibility to show that they meet all statutory criteria for sealing or expungement. The application must be accompanied by a $75 fee, a set of fingerprints taken by authorized law enforcement personnel, and a certified document showing the criminal charges are no longer pending. In Kentucky, a person seeking expungement of court and arrest records must first request a certification of eligibility from the administrative office of the courts and pay $40 for processing. If granted, the certification of eligibility is valid for just 30 days. Then, within those 30 days, the person must submit the certification and an expungement petition to the court. These additional steps require a person with a record to spend substantial time, effort, and money. That time, effort, and money can discourage and even prevent eligible people from pursuing record clearance.

Judge-initiated clearance

In certain situations, no petition is required because a judge may clear a record without the person with a record having to file any documents. This is most commonly authorized at the end of a pretrial diversion or deferred judgment program. For example, in California, the records of a case dismissed after successful completion of a drug diversion program or deferred judgment may be sealed by the presiding judge immediately. Similarly, in Texas, records of a case dismissed after successful completion of a veterans treatment court program may be expunged by the judge immediately or at any time within 30 days of program completion. Such processes save time and resources compared with petition-based processes, but still require the participation of a judge and, in some instances, a defense lawyer and a prosecutor who may present arguments supporting and opposing clearance.

Automatic clearance

In contrast, automatic record clearance is typically done without the need for an adversarial process. If a person has a record that is eligible for clearance, the process is completed without the person having to pay money or convince a judge. For instance, when the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole issues a pardon, it also issues an expungement order to all criminal justice agencies that have the person’s record. This order has the same authority and effect as an order of expungement issued by a court, without involving a judge. When a North Carolina prosecutor moves to dismiss charges against someone named as a defendant because of identity theft or mistaken identity, the judge automatically includes an order expunging all official records of the charges. In Maine, whenever a case ends without a conviction, all related records immediately become confidential and cannot be disclosed, except in specific circumstances.

Some statutes set up systems that start automatically, so the person with the record need not initiate the process, but prosecutors or other officials are allowed to step in and oppose clearance. Nevada law provides an example of this type of clearance system. If a defendant has a mental illness or intellectual disability, the presiding judge can suspend proceedings and place the defendant on probation. If the defendant successfully completes probation, the judge dismisses the case. The judge then orders the record sealed, as the statute directs, unless the Division of Parole and Probation petitions the judge not to do so and requests a hearing. In situations such as these, the process is automatic, but clearance is not mandatory.

In uncontroversial cases where charges ended in dismissal, acquittal, or a conviction for a low-level offense, record clearance that is automatic and mandatory can serve many more people than a petition-based process. An analysis by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office concluded that 22 percent of all convictions in Pennsylvania from January 1, 2003 to November 1, 2008 would be sealed as a result of the state’s automatic record-sealing law, the Clean Slate Act. In such a system, people whose records are eligible to be cleared do not have to know of their eligibility or follow a potentially complex process to its conclusion. They do not have to hire a lawyer or pay a fee, which can be unaffordable for people whose income is depressed because of a criminal record. When access is designed into the system, the reach of record clearance can be enormous.

For more information on automatic record clearance, see Clean Slate Campaign Targets Record Clearance “Gap” in States and Pennsylvania Becomes First State in Nation to Automate Record Sealing.

Clean Slate Campaign Targets Record Clearance “Gap” In States

By CSG Justice Center Staff

Although every state allows for the clearance of at least some types of criminal records, there is a significant gap between the records eligible for clearance and those that actually end up getting removed from easy public access. This “second chance gap” often stems from a lack of awareness of the record clearance process and from the complications associated with getting a record cleared. Many people with criminal records do not know that their records are eligible for clearance. Those who do know and want to clear their records are generally required to file a formal request in court. Such filings often require the help of a lawyer and the payment of fees, sometimes totaling hundreds of dollars.

To help reduce these complications and close this gap, the Center for American Progress, along with 31 partner organizations, launched the Clean Slate Campaign in November 2018. The campaign aims to pass state legislation across the country that would make record clearance automatic for certain low-level conviction and non-conviction records, so that people with eligible records do not have to navigate the court system or pay any fees in order to have their records cleared. Pennsylvania was the first state in the nation to pass this kind of law. The Clean Slate Act, which was signed in June 2018, sets up an automated system that will regularly identify charges eligible to be cleared, notify the state repository of criminal records, and seal the records. (For more on this law, see Pennsylvania Becomes First State in Nation to Automate Record Clearance.) In late March Utah became the second state to enact a clean slate law, providing for automatic expungement of non-conviction and some conviction records. The campaign is now looking to other states where criminal record data systems might be suited to the automated approach.

Record clearance can benefit people who struggle to enter or advance in the workforce because of a criminal history, as well as employers eager for workers in a tight labor market. The Clean Slate Campaign posits that as more people with criminal records get good jobs, the country will see improvements in family stability, community safety, and fiscal health.

Report Breaks Down a Big Year in Record Clearance

By CSG Justice Center Staff

2018 was a busy year for fair chance hiring and criminal record clearance legislation, according to the Collateral Consequences Resource Center (CCRC). As detailed in the report, Reducing Barriers to Reintegration: Fair Chance and Expungement Reforms in 2018, 32 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands enacted a total of 61 new laws aimed at lessening or avoiding the collateral consequences of arrest or conviction. Looking specifically at record clearance, the CCRC found that:

  • Twenty states passed a total of 29 laws that expand opportunities for people to make a fresh start by clearing their records, and
  • Of these states, four—Pennsylvania, California, Vermont, and South Dakota—created record clearance systems that , instead of putting the burden on people with records.

The report describes most record clearance laws passed in 2018 as “incremental expansions of existing law, reflecting refinements based on experience and local political dynamics,” rather than extensive new schemes. Waiting periods were shortened, eligible offenses were expanded, and expedited procedures were created to clear non-conviction, juvenile, and decriminalized offense records. A notable exception to the incremental approach is Pennsylvania’s path-breaking Clean Slate Act, which will automate the sealing of hundreds of thousands of non-conviction and some low-level conviction records beginning in June 2020. For more on this law, see Pennsylvania Becomes First State in Nation to Automate Record Sealing.

State Highlight: Pennsylvania Becomes First State in Nation to Automate Record Sealing

 By CSG Justice Center Staff

After lobbying by a diverse group that included record clearance advocates, business leaders, and Philadelphia Eagles players, Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Act is set to take full effect on June 28, 2019. The first of its kind in the nation, the law mandates automatic, computer-generated record sealing for certain kinds of criminal records—meaning that the vast majority of employers, landlords, schools, and occupational licensing agencies will no longer be able to access these records. This legislation has the potential to mitigate barriers to employment, housing, and education that people with criminal records often face.

The Act, which passed the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support, affects records of conviction for minor offenses known as “summary offenses,” many misdemeanor convictions, and charges that did not lead to conviction. Sealing is allowed after a 10-year period free of any misdemeanor or felony conviction, as long as all financial obligations are paid.

To start the process, each month the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts will send the Pennsylvania State Police—which keeps the central repository of criminal records—a list of records that a computer program has identified as eligible for automatic sealing. The state police will validate these records, notifying the Administrative Office of any ineligible records or data discrepancies. The Administrative Office will then send the list of eligible records to all county courts across the state. Finally, county courts will issue monthly orders for limited access, sealing all affected records.

With an order for limited access in place, access will be limited to state and county officials in the performance of their duties relating to child welfare, employers who are required to consider these records under federal law, and employers who utilize FBI background checks. These records can also be disclosed by court order in certain situations described in the statute.

Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Act addresses a problem known as the “second chance gap,” the gap between the number of records eligible for clearance under state law and the number of records that are actually cleared. An automated clearance system, such as Pennsylvania’s under the new law, takes the burden off people with criminal records to determine their eligibility and navigate the complex clearance process. Automated clearance for certain criminal records also helps reduce the considerable resources needed to process, evaluate, and decide on record clearance petitions on a case-by-case basis.

By the end of June 2020, all existing, eligible records in Pennsylvania—covering hundreds of millions of charges, according to the Administrative Office—are to be sealed. An analysis by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office concluded that 22 percent  of all convictions in the state from January 1, 2003, to November 1, 2008, will be sealed as a result of the Clean Slate Act.

In addition to mandating automatic clearance for certain records, Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Act also expanded eligibility for sealing other records through the existing petition-based process. More information on this provision is available in this flowchart from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.

Reporting and Criminal Records: Three Tips for Journalists

By CSG Justice Center Staff

Criminal record clearance laws are increasingly being implemented across the country, resulting in more and more people becoming eligible to have their criminal record cleared. As a result, there is an increasing conversation among legal practitioners, advocates, and journalists about what considerations should be taken when reporting on record clearance—also known as expungement or sealing, among other terms—and telling the stories of the people it affects.

In response to this growing interest, the Clean Slate Clearinghouse (CSC) hosted a webinar that discussed effective practices that reporters can use when writing stories about people who have criminal records. The webinar, which took place on June 13th, featured a discussion between The Wall Street Journal’s Corinne Ramey, a reporter who covers courts and criminal justice, and Chidi Umez, project manager of the criminal records project at The Council of State Governments Justice Center. During the hour-long conversation, the presenters discussed journalistic practices to keep in mind when writing criminal justice stories, as well as resources journalists can use to inform their reporting. Below are three considerations for journalists covering criminal justice topics, which are informed by the webinar discussion, questions from webinar participants, and recommendations from the CSC advisors.

1. “Humanize” the story: Focus on people

When reporting on stories about the criminal justice system, and those who may have or have had criminal records, speaking with the people behind the issues may help to create a piece that is relatable to a wider audience. Focusing on the people, not just the policies, as appropriate for the story, can help to underscore the breadth of the issues at hand.

  • Consider the impact of the story on a person’s life. Recognize that the information presented in a story can follow a person for many years; these articles are often not affected by expungement orders. Communities of color, who are most impacted by their contact with the criminal justice system, are especially vulnerable to the consequences that follow from stories highlighting their criminal histories.
  • Be open with the interviewee about all the information you will include in the story to reduce the probability of surprises or inaccurate storytelling.

2. Consider language in reporting

Words that describe a criminal record or involvement with the criminal justice system as a person’s defining characteristic may overshadow more important aspects of the story. Although limited word counts can often hinder efforts to accommodate this nuance—particularly in a headline—and the editorial standards and style guides used by various publications differ on how to describe a person who has a criminal history, legal practitioners and advocates agree that certain terms should be used conscientiously.

  • Avoid terms such as “felon,” “offender,” “convict,” or “inmate.” These terms may not only contribute to the social stigmas that affect people who have criminal records, but may also be factually inaccurate based on the person’s circumstance. While a large number of people have criminal records due to incarceration or a felony conviction, many others have criminal records based on other factors, such as an arrest that did not lead to a conviction.
  • Instead, focus on people-centric language. Consider phrasing such as “person who has a criminal record,” “person in the criminal justice system,” “person who is incarcerated,” “person who is in prison/jail custody,” or “person convicted of a crime/felony/misdemeanor.”

3. Balance public safety concerns and the individual’s privacy

Much of what makes a story compelling comes from the reader having enough information to grasp the full picture of the situation at hand. But at times, when telling the stories of people who have criminal records, it may be challenging to balance transparency for the sake of public safety with individual privacy.

  • Consider public safety when choosing to include a person’s criminal record information. Weigh the public’s “need to know,” including any safety issues that may arise in the community based on withholding information about the crimes a person has committed, with the effects the story would have on the person if their criminal history were to be included. This may help to ensure the information does not create unnecessary damage in a person’s life.
  • Include a person’s record clearance history in stories where a person has gone through the process of clearing their record, if they have given their permission. This is important particularly in circumstances where the criminal history information may still be available to the public, despite efforts to limit such access through the formal clearance process.

For more information about reporting on people who have criminal records and criminal record clearance, see Considerations for Journalists Writing about People Who Have Criminal Histories.

Photo credit Joanne Harris and Daniel Bubnich/Shutterstock.com

Warden-Turned-Professor Pushes New Perspective on Collateral Consequences

By Rashawn Davis and Carla Sinclair, CSG Justice Center staff

 Arthur “Art” Beeler is a clinical assistant professor at North Carolina Central University. He has worked in corrections since 1975, most recently as a complex warden at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina (FCC Butner), until his retirement in 2009. Beeler has been published in scholarly journals on criminal justice topics and regularly speaks on the subject. He has won several awards for his work, including the U.S. Surgeon General’s Medallion.

In the 1980s, a man named Bob was convicted of possession with intent to distribute and served five years in a North Carolina prison as a result. When Bob was released from prison, he began to turn his life around: He got married, attained a barber’s license, and went on to work for nearly 20 years as a barber.

One day, Bob decided that he wanted to open his own barber shop. He went to a government loan agency to seek funds to start the new business, but the loan was denied. Art Beeler thinks Bob was denied the loan because of his criminal record—and he doesn’t think that’s how the system should work.

Beeler worked in corrections for more than 30 years, beginning his career as a volunteer probation officer and ending up as complex warden at FCC Butner. In that time, Beeler saw his fair share of reentry stories, but Bob’s stuck with him. Beeler confesses that this story, more than anything else, got him involved in working to reduce the burdens of collateral consequences on people who have criminal records and are trying to rebuild their lives.

“[Bob] was doing day to day work, taking care of his family, and raising his kids . . . a good, solid man,” Beeler said. “This was a young man who was trying to make the American dream happen and had worked diligently for 20 years to make it happen. And he was denied that because he had a felony conviction.”

Beeler admits that he did not know much about collateral consequences early in his career. However, stories like Bob’s quickly showed him the adverse impact a person’s criminal record could have on their future success, including employment opportunities, which is a critical part of reentry.

“I continued to see people coming back [to prison] and I thought we had to do something better,” he said.

While some collateral consequences are necessary, Beeler says, “many of them do not have a nexus to public safety” and only create obstacles for those trying to rebuild their lives after leaving jail or prison. These policies, he said, should be reviewed by policymakers and stakeholders.

In addition to that kind of legislative action, Beeler also points to record clearance as a useful tool for people with first-time offenses and misdemeanors seeking employment, particularly young people.

“Being able to say no, I’ve never been convicted of a misdemeanor, would make a huge difference for a lot of folks,” he said.

Beeler also notes, however, that “institutional memories are long.” In small communities throughout the country, record clearance may be less effective because members of the community often know who has had a criminal record, even if it’s been cleared. As a result, these people may continue to face employment difficulties because of their criminal history regardless of “if it’s on a piece of paper or not.” That’s why he says working directly with people to help them overcome the collateral consequences they face is necessary, too. As a corrections administrator, Beeler wanted to contribute—so he took things into his own hands.

He started working with the late Duke Law School Professor Judge Robinson Everett, conducting seminars that taught people incarcerated at FCC Butner skills and information they would need when reentering the community . As the complex warden at FCC Butner, Beeler became a champion of public-private partnerships that benefitted both people who were incarcerated and local employers. Most notably, he worked with the Meineke Car Care Center corporation to provide mechanic training to qualified men in prison. Successful completion of the training led to employment at Meineke upon release.

The Meineke program was small but effective, according to Beeler, and provided employment for men returning home with criminal records. The results were long-lasting: several of the men that came through that program became managers with Meineke.

Beeler admits that partnerships such as the one he helped create with Meineke require extensive collaboration and the willingness of private sector leaders to hire people who have criminal records. However, the low national unemployment rate and high demand for workers make the present time ripe for similar partnerships that could benefit employers and increase the number of job opportunities for people who have criminal records.

For Beeler, it all starts with education. Educating people who are incarcerated about collateral consequences is critical in preparing them for reentry and employment. Providing people with information on how specific collateral consequences can affect their employment opportunities is key for them to assess which type of skills training they should devote time to while incarcerated—for instance, not training for a job that requires an occupational license for which people with a record are ineligible.

“Many don’t even know what their collateral consequences are most of the time,” Beeler said. “They don’t even know that they might not be able to get a job that they trained [in prison or jail] to get.”

It isn’t just people returning from incarceration that don’t understand the impact of collateral consequences. Since retiring from FCC Butner, Beeler has taught at several universities, including Duke. A few years ago he walked into a seminar where only two of the 24 third-year law students he was teaching could correctly define what collateral consequences were. As an educator and former corrections administrator, Beeler often emphasizes the importance of future defense attorneys and prosecutors understanding what collateral consequences are and how they affect people’s lives. He believes this knowledge allows his students to think more critically about the role they will play in the justice system.

“You have to be able to not put everyone in the same box,” he said. “You have to be able to look at people and make judgements based upon the situational factors.”

With Data, Naomi Maisel Helps Lay Career Foundations for People with Criminal Records

By Rashawn Davis and Carla Sinclair, CSG Justice Center staff

Naomi Maisel is the director of operations-community outreach for First Step Staffing in Atlanta, Georgia. She graduated from Emory University.

More often than not, the hardest part about getting a job for people who have criminal records is getting their foot in the door. Being given the opportunity to show they can work is the first step to building a more stable life, and First Step Staffing is using data to make it happen.

Aptly named, First Step Staffing was founded in Atlanta in 2007 as a nonprofit staffing agency with the mission to secure stable employment and income for people transitioning from homelessness, many of whom also have criminal records. When First Step first began, the small nonprofit helped connect 100 people each day to employment. Today, the staffing organization has grown in both scope and impact, helping to employ nearly 1,000 people every day in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Nashville. Such a high volume of service requires and produces a great amount of data; that data is handled by Maisel.

Maisel started at First Step as an intern, hired to help the organization develop its metrics and key performance indicators. She went on to build the organization’s data system and was offered a full-time job as a project manager and subsequently promoted to operations director. She has since helped grow First Step’s outreach and specialized the agency’s service partnerships based on the data and information collected about the needs of clients through analysis and community outreach.

“There was no program for [metrics], so I did that, and it got really exciting,” she said. “I didn’t know I would be passionate about it, but I was.”

Like other staffing agencies, First Step acts as the intermediary between employers and job seekers; the agency interviews, conducts a background check on, and hires the applicant, who then goes on to work for one of the businesses with whom the agency contracts. First Step is the legal employer and pays the employees’ salaries, while the business it services provide the positions and pay First Step a fee. People who are experiencing homelessness or have criminal records and other barriers to employment can complete the entire job application process with First Step. This model, according to Maisel, takes some of the perceived risk associated with hiring people with criminal records from businesses because First Step is the “employer of record” and is responsible for the workers’ compensation and liability insurance. In hundreds of cases, these employees are then hired full-time by the businesses once they have established a good work ethic and demonstrate success in the work environment. 

“What’s great about this model is that it gives the employer the peace of mind that we’re taking on the risk,” she said. “It enables us to give work to people who wouldn’t normally be able to get that position.”

The agency fills “light industrial” positions, which can range from warehouse distribution to food processing and packaging. Through many partnerships with a large number of local businesses, First Step is often able to provide positions to people whose criminal records may prevent them from working in certain industries, increasing their chance of placement and success.

“If a client has a bunch of DUIs, we can’t put them in our driving (jobs) but we can put them somewhere else,” she said. “With folks with different criminal backgrounds, we have so many customers—about 100-plus employers in Atlanta right now—that usually there’s something for everyone.”

The model has proven effective, with nearly two-thirds of clients making it to the six-month mark at their respective jobs. For those who don’t make it to that six-month mark, Maisel points to recidivism and communication gaps, as well as general “volatility” in their lives, as some of the many reasons clients stop working. She admits that more can be done, which is why First Step recently rolled out its “Response Interventions” study.

This six-month study used data to identify all new clients who worked 10 hours or fewer during their first month of employment. First Step staff reached out to these clients to figure out whether they need additional resources, such as housing and transportation, to succeed in their new roles. This pilot was possible through Maisel’s data collection and First Step’s many partnerships with other reentry organizations in the area; it also provided important insight on the bigger picture of the barriers to employment that this population faces and allows First Step to build more intentional support systems to lessen these barriers.

“Number one, we’re intervening before it gets bad and before they lose their job,” Maisel said. “Number two, we’re getting really good data on why people are falling off. Is it because of transportation? Is it because of childcare? We don’t know until we get the data.”

Another place Maisel hopes to see data and automation play a larger role in is record clearance. Drawing from her own experience running background checks on job seekers, Maisel said even the act of attempting to go through long documents to find expungeable records can be a potential barrier.

“It is very confusing and can be intimidating for clients to go down that path,” she said. “And when your life is so volatile, you don’t have time to go back and forth with a lawyer to try and fix it.”

Maisel thinks an automated record clearing system will help ease some of those burdens for people and, consequently, facilitate increased access to employment. While she has heard dialogue about record clearance among civic leaders, she hopes to see the conversation expand to include more policymakers. In the meantime, Maisel plans to continue growing First Step’s footprint in Atlanta, as well as in other cities across the country, because she has seen firsthand how life-changing employment can be.

There may be few better examples of that notion than Peter.[i] Peter came to First Step shortly after he was released from prison and had been turned down by other staffing agencies for employment because of his criminal record. First Step helped Peter, guiding him through the application process and ultimately securing him employment at Sun Trust Park, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team. Peter excelled. He was eventually brought on as a full-time employee with benefits, and was honored as “Employee of the Month” at the park.

Though not all clients end up like Peter, the impact First Step, its community resources, and its targeted data have on the people it works to employ is clear. Maisel recounts how First Step played a role even at the ceremony where Peter received his Employee of the Month award

“[Peter] doesn’t have any family, and one of the things that spoke to me a lot about his story was that a couple of First Step members went to the ceremony to be his ‘family,’” she said. “He completely flipped his life around.”

[i] The person’s name has been changed to protect their privacy.

Get to Know the Expert: Roberta Meyers

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.

For the Record: Candid Conversations about Criminal Record Clearance—Episode 3, Bettie Kirkland

Bettie Kirkland, the executive director of Project Return in Nashville, joins For the Record to discuss her organization’s work connecting hundreds of people who have criminal records to employment each year and reflects on what it means to ensure they have a chance at success.

To listen, please click here.

About For The Record

Around 70 million adults in the United States have a criminal record, and thousands more work to help those with records succeed in their communities. Each one of these people has a story.

This interview series, produced as part of the Clean Slate Clearinghouse, explores the varying perspectives on often overlooked and underexplored aspects of criminal records and what it means to clear them. In each episode, Rashawn Davis, a policy analyst at The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, sits down with people in the field—which include those with criminal records as well as policymakers, lawyers, and social workers, among others—to capture their experiences and their visions for the future of criminal record clearance.

State Highlight: New Jersey Expands Juvenile, Adult Record Clearance Opportunities

By CSG Justice Center Staff

Two new laws take effect in New Jersey this year that expand the scope of juvenile and adult record clearance and reduce the time people must wait to request it. The laws were passed by the New Jersey Legislature in late 2017.

Unlike most states, New Jersey law allows for the clearance of an entire juvenile record after a waiting period is completed, in addition to providing for clearance on a case-by-case basis. As of April 1, 2018, one of the new laws, S3308, cut that waiting period from five years to three years. For expungement of an entire record, the three-year waiting period starts at the person’s final discharge from legal custody or the entry of the last court order in the case. The other eligibility factors remain unchanged by the new law, which requires that the person must

  • Not have been convicted or adjudicated delinquent for any offense during the waiting period;
  • Not have current adult or juvenile charges;
  • Not have a juvenile adjudication on their record for which the adult equivalent is ineligible for expungement;
  • Not have had an adult conviction expunged; and
  • Not have had a dismissal of adult charges after completing a supervisory treatment or other diversion program.

“The National Juvenile Defender Center applauds New Jersey for shortening the waiting period for certain juvenile record expungements, which could reduce some of the barriers young people face when seeking employment, accessing housing, and applying for college,” said Mary Ann Scali, the executive director of the National Juvenile Defender Center.

The new law regarding adult records, S3307—which takes effect on October 1, 2018—contains a raft of changes to adult criminal record expungement provisions, expanding the number of records that can be expunged and making expungement available sooner. The law reduces the waiting period to request expungement of conviction records for crimes from 10 years to 6 years, allows more records to be expunged, and removes the bar to expungement for people who have had charges dismissed after completing a supervisory treatment or other diversion program. The old law dictated that anyone seeking expungement was limited to one crime (defined as an offense punishable by more than six months of imprisonment) and two lesser offenses (termed “disorderly persons” and “petty disorderly persons” offenses, which are not crimes). The new law allows more combinations of records to be considered for expungement, including

  • One crime and up to three lesser offenses;
  • Multiple crimes and lesser offenses from the same case; and
  • Multiple crimes and lesser offenses that were closely related and committed within a short period of time.

Those seeking to expunge conviction records of only lesser offenses have more options under the new law as well. The limit of one lesser offense was raised to four, and the following categories were added:

  • Multiple lesser offenses from the same date
  • Multiple lesser offenses that were closely related and committed within a short period of time

In all of the above categories, the law requires that the person seeking expungement have no other prior or later convictions.

The new law also addresses the fact that unpaid fines from criminal cases can keep expungement out of reach for people who would otherwise qualify. As is common in other states, the waiting period to request expungement in New Jersey begins when the most recent case is completely over—and all fines are paid in full. The new law provides relief by

  • Allowing a person whose fines are still not fully paid to seek expungement after six years as long as there is no evidence of willful noncompliance with court orders to pay;
  • Waiving the six-year waiting period once a person pays a fine in full, provided six years have passed since conviction or sentence completion; and
  • Allowing a person to petition for expungement five years after full payment, the end of probation or parole, or release from incarceration, whichever is latest, if the person has no later conviction and a judge decides that expungement would be in the public interest.

“These amendments represent a growing acknowledgement in New Jersey of the unnecessary limitations caused by simply having a past arrest or conviction,” said Akil Roper, vice president and assistant general counsel at Legal Services of New Jersey. “Removing these barriers earlier in the process—and expanding eligibility—will positively impact many people, families and communities.”

For the Record: Candid Conversations about Criminal Record Clearance—Episode 2, Esta Bigler

Esta Bigler, the director of the Cornell University Industrial and Labor Relations School’s Labor and Employment Law program, joins For the Record to discuss her work regarding record clearance as a lawyer, which has ranged from creating educational programming to working on a groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court case.

To listen, please click here.

About For The Record

Around 70 million adults in the United States have a criminal record, and thousands more work to help those with records succeed in their communities. Each one of these people has a story.

This interview series, produced as part of the Clean Slate Clearinghouse, explores the varying perspectives on often overlooked and underexplored aspects of criminal records and what it means to clear them. In each episode, Rashawn Davis, a policy analyst at The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, sits down with people in the field—which include those with criminal records as well as policymakers, lawyers, and social workers, among others—to capture their experiences and their visions for the future of criminal record clearance.

Get to Know the Expert: Margaret Stevenson

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 mechanism to expand record clearance nationwide. The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center staff spoke with advisory committee member Margaret “Peggy” Stevenson, the director of the San Jose State University (SJSU) Record Clearance Project (RCP) in San Jose, California. Since 2008, RCP has trained undergraduate students to assist people with criminal records throughout the expungement process.

How did you get involved with record clearance?

I was a legal services lawyer for 10 years in different offices around the country. My focus was primarily on low wage worker’s rights, not anything dealing with criminal records. However, clients would often tell me that they couldn’t get a job because they had a criminal record.

In 2005, while I was working in East Palo Alto at a community law center, a woman from the group All of Us or None visited. She said that if our law center was truly a community law center, then we needed to be more reflective of the needs of the community, and that meant doing record clearance work. She was right. Although we didn’t know much about record clearance and few legal service providers were doing that work at the time, we learned. And I did record clearance work in East Palo Alto for a couple of years before I started teaching here at San Jose State University.

Why an undergraduate expungement clinic?

I thought, if law students could do this, why can’t undergrads?

We started doing expungement petitions as a class project in the Courts and Society class I taught at SJSU. Within three years, we had developed an entire course sequence around criminal record clearance.

In the first class of the course sequence, Record Clearance Project – Practical Legal Skills, we teach students legal research, legal interviewing, and how to do community education presentations that inform people about expungement laws [in California]. In the second class, Record Clearance Project – Representation, students are assigned clients whom they assist with preparing expungement petitions for court.

What do you say to people who are skeptical of undergraduates doing this work?

I wasn’t sure about it myself, but it really seems to work. Undergraduate students in RCP have assisted with [more than] 1,300 expungement petitions and 99 percent of them have been granted. Undergraduates are outstanding interviewers; they are motivated and sincere. Stanford and Columbia Law School students volunteer on occasion to work at the RCP. When they are paired with RCP students, law students always say how much they admire the work of our undergraduates.

What are some ways that RCP has evolved and expanded over the years?

All our work is need-driven.

We bought a LiveScani machine so that clients, who would come to our advice sessions but didn’t know what was on their records, could learn about their records without having to pay for a copy.

We started going to jails in 2012 because we felt that people needed to know record clearance information before they were released. We’ve talked to [more than] 3,100 people in custody, and 92 percent of them did not know even the basics about their rights to clear their records.

When people being released needed guidance to help them get ready to apply for expungement, we hired former clients as mentors to guide them on their journey.

Are there any moments in this work that have personally inspired you?

Once we were talking to a group of men at Elmwood jail, and I shared that as part of the expungement process, petitioners explain to the judge their story and how they are moving forward with their lives. I asked people to throw out ideas about what some people’s turning points might be.

And someone stood up and said, “being here.” I thought he meant the experience of being sent to jail would motivate people to change. But that wasn’t it–many of them had been to jail before. [He] followed up saying, “you all have given us hope, what you have told us about our rights has given me hope. This is my turning point.” Remembering that moment always gets me emotional. It was pretty powerful.

What do you see on the horizon for record clearance?

I am a perpetual optimist. In California, there have been great legislative advances around record clearance and I feel that once other jurisdictions in the country begin to see what works, we will see record clearance expand. And I hope that California will be able to help set that stage.

i LiveScan machines, often used by law enforcement agencies, can use fingerprints to access the user’s criminal history.

For the Record: Candid Conversations about Criminal Record Clearance—Episode 1, Khalil Cumberbatch

Khalil Cumberbatch, an associate vice president at the Fortune Society, joins the podcast to discuss his experiences living with a criminal record and receiving a gubernatorial pardon as well as his current efforts as a criminal justice reform advocate and his vision for the future of criminal record clearance.

To listen, please click here.

About For the Record

Around 70 million adults in the United States have a criminal record, and thousands more work to help those with records succeed in their communities. Each one of these people has a story.

This interview series, produced as part of the Clean Slate Clearinghouse, explores the varying perspectives on often overlooked and underexplored aspects of criminal records and what it means to clear them. In each episode, Rashawn Davis, a policy analyst at The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, sits down with people in the field—which include those with criminal records as well as policymakers, lawyers, and social workers, among others—to capture their experiences and their visions for the future of criminal record clearance.

State Highlight: North Carolina’s Record Clearance Expansion

By CSG Justice Center Staff

North Carolina’s General Assembly moved to significantly reduce waiting periods and expand the number of records eligible for clearance with Session Law 2017-195, which went into effect December 1, 2017.

Notably, the law reduces the waiting period to expunge a nonviolent felony conviction record from 15 years to 10 years; for a nonviolent misdemeanor record, the law reduces the period from 15 years to 5 years.

“The reduced waiting periods make the relief more meaningful by making it available sooner, when people are more likely to be adversely affected by having a criminal record,” said John Rubin, a law professor at the University of North Carolina and author of Relief from a Criminal Conviction: A Digital Guide to Expunctions, Certificates of Relief, and Other Procedures in North Carolina.

Before the law’s enactment, dismissal or acquittal charges could not be expunged if the person had already obtained an expunction for another case. The law removes that restriction. It also eliminates the requirement that the dismissal or acquittal charges must have originated in the same 12-month period to be expunged. Furthermore, with some clarifying language, the law reinforces that a court can expunge dismissal and acquittal charges even if the person was convicted of one or more misdemeanors in the same case. However, a person with a previous felony conviction remains ineligible to expunge dismissal and acquittal records.

“By repealing the provision that allowed one expunction of a dismissal or acquittal for life, the North Carolina General Assembly expanded the opportunity for relief,” Rubin said.

Data show that dismissal and acquittal records made up the large majority of expunged records, even before the new law took effect: From July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017, North Carolina courts issued 12,438 orders to expunge records, of which 10,457 (84 percent) dealt with dismissal and acquittal records. The second most common type of expunged records involved people erroneously named as perpetrators of crimes because of identity theft or mistake; these matters, which also include non-conviction records, were the subject of 1,010 orders (8 percent). Orders to expunge conviction records of older nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors were a distant third, with 500 issued (4 percent).

Data on the impact of the December 2017 changes are not yet available. The law’s elimination of the prior expunction bar and shortening of the waiting periods should significantly increase both the non-conviction and conviction records eligible to be expunged.

While the law increases access to record clearance, it also directs the state court system to provide all North Carolina state prosecutors with a list of people whose records are expunged on or after July 1, 2018, along with copies of their petitions. Excluded from the list are people who obtained expunction orders for cases in which they were found not guilty. Prosecutors can use conviction records expunged on or after July 1, 2018, to determine a sentence if the person is later convicted of a new criminal offense.

Judge Kevin Burke Takes on Record Clearance from the Bench

By Rashawn Davis and Carla Sinclair, CSG Justice Center staff

Kevin Burke is a District Court Judge in Hennepin County, Minnesota. There, he was elected to four terms as Chief Judge and three terms as Assistant Chief Judge. From 1991-1996, he served as the Chair of the Conference of Chief Justices. Judge Burke teaches trial practice at the University of Minnesota Law School and criminal procedure at the University of St. Thomas Law School. 

In Minnesota District Court Judge Kevin Burke’s mind, “a society that wants to grow needs to realize that people will make mistakes, and that many of those people deserve a second chance.”

The state-level judicial system plays a role in making that society a reality, said Judge Burke, especially when it comes to clearing criminal records and allowing people to put their past behind them.

Judge Burke started his judiciary career as a district court judge in 1984. Since then, he has heard thousands of cases and, in 1995, started Minnesota’s first drug court, citing the need for greater fairness in the criminal justice system. With the drug court, he reduced the time it took for cases to be heard, a move that ensured people—and their cases—didn’t get lost in the system, which promoted efficiency and got more people access to the resources they needed. Judge Burke grew the innovative court model to become one of the largest drug courts in the United States, and his work has subsequently led him to 40 states and 8 countries to speak about improving criminal justice systems.

As a judge involved in criminal justice reform, the impact criminal records can have on a person has never been far from Judge Burke’s mind. Over his 34 years of public service, he has seen many people struggle because of the legal and regulatory sanctions and restrictions associated with their criminal record, also known as collateral consequences.

“With the internet, with computers, with the background checks that occur all over the place, we’re in an era in which there really is no forgiveness,” Judge Burke said. “And it can inhibit somebody’s ability to be successful and a contributing member of society.”

Judge Burke recalls a case of a woman who approached his court looking to expunge her criminal record. She had been working at a bank for more than 15 years and had recently received a promotion, which required a routine background check. The check uncovered a criminal record that stemmed from a fight she and a partner had while in college, which ended in them both being arrested.

Rather than an extended legal proceeding, she decided to plead guilty and put the incident behind her. After going on to receive a master’s degree, she had a successful career at the bank—until the background check. Her employer not only revoked the promotion, but threatened to let her go unless she removed the decades-old conviction from her record. Judge Burke ultimately granted her the expungement, but the story stuck with him.

“Decent people can end up in a situation in which the consequences of having a public record of your misdeed vastly outweighs its importance to anybody,” he said. “A lot of people who do a great job aren’t allowed to do it.”

Criminal records don’t just affect a person’s employment outcomes, but often beget barriers to housing and education as well, which can lead to decreased financial opportunities.

These barriers are especially felt in communities of color where Judge Burke describes criminalization as “a big problem.” Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. This incarceration disparity often leads to widespread and lasting effects of collateral consequences that affect some communities more than others.

Referencing the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report—a 1968 report on race relations in America that found less social and economic opportunities for black people than for white— Judge Burke believes that its findings are still relevant today.

“There’s a recent report that went to look at, well, where are we 50 years after the Kerner Commission? And the answer is, in some areas we’re significantly worse,” he said.

In regard to record clearance as a whole, Judge Burke acknowledges that work is already being done by state lawmakers in his home state of Minnesota around record clearance and collateral consequences. However, he says that more work remains to be done. This includes rethinking the pardon system in states like Minnesota, where Judge Burke believes many more people have the potential to benefit from pardon review than do so currently.

“There are thousands of people with small criminal records,” Judge Burke said “…those little cases have enormous collateral consequences to people.”

Another opportunity is improved follow-up on cases in the judicial system. During his time on the bench Judge Burke has noticed that when record clearance petitioners appear before judges in his county, it is often the first and last time the judge will see them. Judge Burke believes that more can be done to keep track of the success stories that come from people with expunged records, which would show policymakers and the judiciary the importance of expanded record clearance and the need for further dialogue.

Drawing from decades of firsthand experience, Judge Burke said he always reminds his students at the University of Minnesota that “all of us are capable of making some pretty serious mistakes in our lives, and most of us . . . were lucky enough not to get caught.”

For those who did, however, he emphasized that the judicial system could play a larger role in minimizing the potentially outsized damage these mistakes and the criminal records attached to them can have on people.

But for now, he looked to the future. Recognizing that many people, not just judges, need to play a role, Judge Burke emphasized that record clearance is “a big, nationwide problem that requires a nationwide commitment to [give people] a second chance.”

Seeking New Perspective, Interview Series Gives Firsthand Look at Criminal Record Clearance Experiences

By Carla Sinclair, CSG Justice Center staff

With awareness of the need for criminal justice reform on the rise across the country, hearing stories about people who have criminal records isn’t all that uncommon. But a new interview series is allowing listeners to actually hear how these records have impacted lives as well as the discourse surrounding criminal record clearance.

For the Record is produced by the Clean Slate Clearinghouse, a project funded by the U.S. Departments of Labor and Justice that provides resources that help individuals with criminal records learn more about removing, or “clearing,” those records from easy public access. The series features conversations between Rashawn Davis—a policy analyst at The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center—and people who are involved in the criminal record clearance field, including elected officials, lawyers, social workers, and people who have or have had a juvenile or criminal record (or individuals who are all four, or more).

Davis and his guests will highlight the underexplored experiences, perspectives, and policy advances that are shaping the field and impacting the futures of people who have juvenile or criminal records.

“By exploring the narratives around the people who work, advocate, and benefit from record clearance, we bring color to a subject that is too often seen in black and white,” Davis explained. “The show helps to bring voices into the dialogue that aren’t often heard. This hopefully helps to expand the discussion around record clearance and can act as a model for other areas of criminal justice, which plays into the Clean Slate Clearinghouse’s goal to be a nexus for criminal record clearance resources.”

The inaugural episode was released on March 6, 2018, and features an interview with criminal justice reform advocate Khalil Cumberbatch, an associate vice president with the Fortune Society and someone who has an intimate knowledge of the series’ subject: he spent almost seven years in prison, and four years after that with a criminal record until he received a gubernatorial pardon in 2014.

Opening the conversation about record clearance in this way “has the ability to tell a larger narrative, which in this case, is largely about humanizing someone,” Cumberbatch said, noting the power of framing the conversation around people, not convictions, when it comes to talking about individuals who have juvenile or criminal records.

“It doesn’t mean that it’s a win, and everyone can pack up and go home,” he said. “But it is a way to shift culture.”

Listen to the first episode here, and stay tuned for information on the next episode of For the Record.

State Highlight: Illinois Widens Net of Records Eligible for Expungement

By CSG Justice Center Staff

A record clearance law enacted in August 2017 put Illinois at the forefront of states expanding access to criminal record clearance. House Bill 2373 greatly increased the number of offenses eligible for record sealing, among other provisions. Effective immediately, all felony convictions became eligible for sealing, other than those that were already carved out as ineligible. Previously, only a few specified felonies were eligible for sealing, along with misdemeanors and municipal violations.

The only convictions that remain ineligible for sealing are:

  • Domestic battery and violation of orders of protection
  • Humane care for animals offenses (Class A misdemeanor and above)
  • Driving under the influence and reckless driving, unless it was a youthful offender case
  • Sex crimes, except for prostitution and misdemeanor public indecency

A person will still have to wait three years before they can file for record clearance, which starts when they complete their last sentence. But there is a new exception to the waiting period, which is intended to promote rehabilitation: if a person obtains an educational degree or career certification while serving their last sentence, they can request sealing of eligible records immediately after completing that sentence. The changes to the waiting period do not apply to convictions that require registration on the Murder and Violence Offense Against Youth registry; a person on this registry must wait to apply for record sealing until they are no longer required to register.

Entities required by law to conduct fingerprint-based background checks through the Illinois State Police, such as schools, park districts, and health care providers, will still have access to sealed records, as they did before the expansion.

“This is the greatest expansion of sealing relief in Illinois history. We anticipate that this law will change the futures of thousands of individuals who felt there was no hope,” said Beth Johnson, Legal Director of Cabrini Green Legal Aid, which handles about 70 percent of the sealing petitions filed in Chicago each year. Johnson reported that of the 1,140 people her organization helped with sealing in the final three months of 2017, 30 percent would have been ineligible before the law’s expansion.

State Highlight: Nevada Opens Opportunities for Record Clearance

By CSG Justice Center Staff

As the 2017 legislative session ended, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval signed a law that significantly increases opportunities to seal criminal records. Assembly Bill 327, which took effect on October 1, puts Nevada at the forefront of states changing record clearance laws to help people with criminal convictions move beyond their record.

The new law reduces the length of time a person must wait before petitioning for a record sealing, establishes a presumption in favor of sealing in most cases, and simplifies the petition process for those who want to seal more than one record. It also opens the possibility of sealing to those who received a dishonorable discharge from probation, which can result from not paying all fines and fees. Offenses that were previously ineligible for sealing, such as sex crimes and felony DUIs, remain ineligible under the new law.

AB 327 reduces the waiting period for various levels of offenses, which include:

  • Category A felonies, crimes of violence, and burglary, for which the time is reduced from 15 years to 10 years
  • Category B, C, and D felonies, for which the time is reduced from 12 years to 5 years
  • Category E felonies, for which the time is reduced from seven years to two years
  • Gross misdemeanors, for which the time is reduced from five years to two years
  • Most other misdemeanors, for which the time is reduced from two years to one year

For people completing a reentry program after incarceration, the time is reduced from five years to four years.

The law also streamlines the sealing process when more than one court is involved. Before AB 327, a person would have to file multiple petitions to seal records for cases in different courts; now, a person can file a single petition in the district court to request sealing of all eligible records.

Proponents of the bill say it will have positive effects, both economically and socially.

“The new law comes at an auspicious time,” said Rita Greggio, Community Development Attorney at Nevada Legal Services. “As Nevada’s economy continues to grow, the job market has become increasingly competitive, and the new law will allow job seekers to seal their records more quickly, allowing them to re-enter the workforce sooner.”

“It’s hard for most people to imagine the barriers caused by a criminal record,” said Barbara Buckley, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. “Individuals can lose opportunities for employment, housing, and so much more.  Last year we saw a mom denied access to a military base to see her son graduate. Changing these laws will change so many lives for the better.”

Get to Know the Expert: Michelle Natividad Rodriguez

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.

Get to Know the Expert: Beth Johnson

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.

Learn more about Beth Johnson and Cabrini Green Legal Aid.

Get to Know the Expert: Michael Pinard

By CSG Justice Center Staff

The Clean Slate Clearinghouse  Advisory Board—which consists of legal and academic experts from around the country—works to make the Clean Slate Clearinghouse a mechanism to expand record clearance nationwide. 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.

CSG Justice Center: How did you get into record clearance work?

Michael Pinard: After law school, I became a public defender in Harlem where we practiced a form of criminal defense called holistic representation; many  clients faced other issues besides their criminal case, and so we worked to connect them with services and resources they needed. A few years later, I was a clinical teaching fellow, where I worked in a law school clinic that represented women in prison who had been sexually abused while incarcerated, and in 2002, I moved to Baltimore to teach at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School School of Law. When I arrived, many individuals and organizations were working on reentry issues. Sherrilyn Ifill and I started the Reentry Clinic at the law school because we wanted students and the law school to contribute to these efforts in Baltimore and to work on issues that merged civil rights, various aspects of civil law and the criminal justice system. Through our clinic work, it became clear to me that we cannot look at a criminal record in isolation, but rather must look at the broad impact they have on the lives of individuals, families, and communities.

What do you try to teach your students about the record clearance process?

I want my students to understand the enormity of a criminal justice interaction. That person is now at risk of not having a place to live or at risk of losing their job, and if he or she did not already have a job they will now have a much more difficult time finding one. If it’s a child they will now have much more difficulty finishing school. I always tell my students that while there are minor crimes, there is no such thing as a minor criminal record.

What inspires you to do this work?

The people I work with are working tirelessly to get their lives in order and now are seeking to take that last and very significant step in getting their record cleared. It is truly courageous for individuals to reinsert themselves into the legal system to undergo the process of having their records cleared. I’m very much inspired by that bravery and commitment.

With the Clean Slate Clearinghouse launching soon, what excites you most about the project? What excites you about the future of record clearance policies in general?

There is certainly a need to have a broad understanding of what is happening about the country regarding record clearance … and I’m most excited about the Clearinghouse being able to provide valuable information and tools to advocates, policymakers, and affected populations alike.

I think we’re seeing a lot of momentum at the state level with record clearance expansion; many state legislatures are beginning to pass justice reform packages, with clearance as an important piece of those packages. These states are giving us momentum to build on.

What part does record clearance play in the larger national discussion about the criminal justice system?

We have masses of individuals who cycle through the criminal justice system every single day, many who do not serve time in jails or prisons but come out with records. These records will impede their ability to secure and maintain housing, employment, and so much more. We have to ensure that the criminal justice reform narrative includes their stories.

If you want to learn more about starting a record clearance clinic at a law school, contact Michael Pinard at mpinard@law.umaryland.edu or on Twitter at the handle @ProfMPinard.

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