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.

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.

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 or on Twitter at the handle @ProfMPinard.

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