One of the great things about being invited to be on a panel at the Pro Bono Institute's wonderful annual conference is that, even though I was presumable asked because I know something about the topic, I always learn much more from my fellow panelists. Such was the case last week, when I served with McGregor Smythe of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and Steven Fus, Assistant General Counsel at United Airlines, Inc. Our topic was pro bono opportunities in prison re-entry.
As I have written about previously here, former inmates who are released from prison or jail face huge obstacles in getting back into the mainstream of society. More than 630,000 are released from federal and state prisons every year. That figure doesn't even include those released from local jails. While they are expected to go out and find work, continue their education, attend rehab, and generally become upstanding citizens, the truth is that their communities often don't give them much of a chance to do that. When we fail to help them, we have ourselves to blame for recidivism.
During our panel session, we talked about many (but by no means all) of the areas in which former inmates face signfiicant impediments, and how lawyers working pro bono can help to address them. Consider these:
Expungements/access to criminal records: 33 states have no expungement or sealing of any conviction records. Others allow some, such as first offender or juvenile records, or records of specific offenses. 40 allow expungement of arrest records not leading to conviction. Steven Fus shared some great information about a regular expungement clinic in which he participates with Cabrini Green Legal Aid. Volunteers meet with the clients to determine their eligibility for expungement, sealing, or clemency, and then assist the clients with the appropriate paperwork. With the great training provided, this is something any interested lawyer can do. The issue of conviction and arrest records is vital, because these records are so readily available, and can affect so many other things, like employment, educational opportunity, and housing.
Speaking of employment: 37 states allow employers to ask about and consider arrests. Only a handful prohibit or limit this in any way. As a former employment law attorney who worked in the area of selection procedure validation, I can tell you that most employers have no idea that the use of arrest or conviction records in selecting employees needs to be validated! Considering these records has tremendous adverse impact, and often people are rejected for employment because of an arrest for which they were never convicted, or conviction for an offense that has nothing to do with the job. Many states also have no standards on how arrests or convictions play into public employment or occupational licensing, while some require a direct or a reasonable relationship.
Don't even get me started about the problem of petty collateral charges and warrants, many for things like traffic violations, public intoxication, etc. that former inmates often find themselves dragging around after they thought they had paid their debts to society. Here in the South, the accompanying inability to get a drivers license can prevent one from doing any of the things expected of him, like getting to work or school, or to rehab. McGregor Smythe also spoke about the difficulties many face in New York dealing with the crushing and insurmountable debts associated with such charges. Similarly, McGregor mentioned the problems faced by those whose child support debts continued to mount while they were behind bars.
Some other issues:
Public benefits: Federal law prohibits those with felony drug convictions from receiving welfare benefits. This is a lifetime ban. States can alter that through legislation, but only 12 have completely eliminated the ban. Seventeen maintain the full ban. So just getting basic necessities can be a huge problem, and one in which dealing with the paperwork and regulations can be incredibly daunting for someone who has no legal training and just got out of prison.
Public housing: Most states have individualized decision making about whether an individual with a criminal record can get public housing. People often need help in dealing with this process.
Voting: I find it astounding that regaining one's right to vote after a criminal conviction is a state by state determination. Only two states have no restrictions. A few have a complete lifetime ban. Several more have ban that can be lifted on an individual basis. Others require completion of sentence or something similar. Work in the area of voting rights restoration can run the gamut from simple clinics to determine eligibilty and fill out paperwork, to litigation.
Suffice to say that there is a wealth of opportunity for pro bono lawyers to help former prisoners get on with their lives in a productive way. And by doing so, they can do a great service to their communities.