Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: Opening Doors for Students and Clients – Temple Law Students and Criminal Record Expungements in Philadelphia


2015-16 Merit Distinction Honoree, Emily Bock

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.

This week, the 2015-16 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees will be guest blogging about law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. (This year’s Pro Bono Publico Award recipient, Lark Mulligan, will be published the following week.) Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and Temple University Beasley School of Law student Emily Bock, a multi-talented advocate dedicated to criminal record expungement.


Opening Doors for Students and Clients: Temple Law Students and Criminal Record Expungements in Philadelphia
Emily Bock, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Merit Distinction Honoree, 2015-2016 (Temple University Beasley School of Law)

In Pennsylvania, there are 11.1 African Americans and 6 Hispanics in federal or state prison for every White prisoner.[1] Nationally, there are more than twice as many people on probation or parole than there are incarcerated.[2] One in three United States adults will have been arrested by the age of 23.[3] The magnitude of the problem of criminal records is hard to comprehend, especially when we factor in people who are arrested, charged with crimes, and never convicted. In many cities, low-income communities of color are disproportionately policed as compared to higher-income, white communities.[4] This means that residents of low-income neighborhoods often have more criminal records,  adding more barriers to escaping poverty.[5] Around 87% of employers conduct criminal background checks during the hiring process, which makes any criminal record (conviction or otherwise) a potential barrier.[6] Philadelphia has the highest per capita incarceration rate of the 10 largest U.S. cities, with almost 7 out of every thousand citizens behind bars.[7] Additionally, Philadelphia is one of the poorest major cities in the United States, so when we consider the impact of criminal records on those who are most vulnerable, we must understand the extent of the devastation that our criminal legal system has wrought on poor people, especially poor people of color.[8]

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia has been a pioneer in the practice of representing people with criminal records. I was very fortunate to learn from them as a Haverford House Fellow and paralegal for their Employment Unit, where I worked almost exclusively on criminal record expungement and pardon cases. When I was a 1L at Temple Law, I was fortunate again to work with their Employment Unit as we developed a new project for taking criminal expungement clinics to neighborhoods with high numbers of arrests without convictions. Since September 2014, the Temple National Lawyers Guild Expungement Project has worked with Community Legal Services to hold 9 clinics in different parts of the city – in Center City, Germantown, West Philadelphia, Kensington, Spring Garden, and Olney. We have interviewed approximately 165 potential clients, accepted 111 clients for representation, and filed almost 400 expungement petitions. During this time, over 100 law student volunteers have been trained to interview clients at the clinics.

Many students are surprised when they learn that in Pennsylvania, arrests without conviction remain on a person’s criminal record until they file an expungement petition. Students are also shocked when they hear that old convictions, especially minor convictions, cannot be expunged. In Pennsylvania, many misdemeanors and all felony convictions are not eligible for expungement or sealing, which leaves those with old convictions only one option for trying to clear their criminal records – applying for a pardon.[9]  However, there has been some progress. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf recently signed a bill into law that would permit sealing of minor (misdemeanor) convictions under certain circumstances.[10] This new law is huge step in the right direction for a state like Pennsylvania where the law on criminal records is fairly conservative.

This year we were lucky to have two first-year law student representatives working with our committee. Here is what they had to say about their work in our expungement clinics:

“I remember sitting with my first client at an expungement clinic. It was early Saturday morning and we were in a part of Philadelphia I had never been to before, that people reference with a certain tone of voice. The client I met with had a low-level conviction when he was very young, then about 10 years later he was arrested and charged with something more serious that he didn’t do. Even though those charges were dropped, he struggled to find a job after that. He currently works full time, and makes the same amount of money I did when I waitressed part time in high school. He supports a family—he has children my age, and several grandchildren. This expungement will mean that he can get a higher-paying job so that his hard work will take him farther.

It has been important to me to put a face to the population that people talk about in class, sometimes in less than respectful ways. It helps me see what a different world I live in than people I inevitably pass on the street every day, and to wonder if people I went to high school with would have such prestigious jobs if we grew up in a different place. I actually keep this client’s initials at the top of my law school to do list to remind me why I’m here and to keep me motivated so I can do as much good as I can.” – Liz, 1L Representative

“I had a very meaningful experience during my first clinic at the church in Germantown. It was an older woman who came in with her daughter. She was incredibly sweet — it was hard to imagine her having ever been in trouble with the law. But one incident about 30 years ago left her record with one conviction and several non-conviction records. I forget whether she was seeking housing assistance or employment; either way, this decades-old conviction was a major roadblock in her life. We told her that she could get the non-convictions expunged. Further, because she was arrest-free for so long, we said that she probably could also get the conviction pardoned. She and her daughter were so happy. It was amazing to me that this woman had lived for so many years with this burden, and we were able to so quickly help her. It was also gratifying to, in one case, employ the several legal tools we have available — expungements and pardons — to help this woman clean up her decades-old record and move forward with her life.” – Aaron, 1L Representative

When I do any work related to the criminal legal system, whether it is working with people who are incarcerated, people with criminal records, or people charged with crimes, I always make sure to emphasize that they are people first. Many people who are charged with crimes are never convicted of the crime, but are left with an arrest record that can create the same challenges as a conviction. They deserve the presumption of innocence that our criminal legal system affords them. I firmly believe that all people deserve a fundamental level of dignity and respect, not conditioned upon whether they have been convicted of a crime or have gone to prison. As one of my heroes, Bryan Stevenson said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”[11]

I am grateful that Temple Law School can now offer many opportunities to its students to see these words in practice – whether through the Temple NLG Expungement Project, or through any of its other excellent clinical offerings.

Citations:

[1] Christopher Harney and Linh Vuong Created Equal: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the US Criminal Justice System (National Council on Crime and Delinquency, March 2009).

[2] U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Probation and Parole in the United States, 2008, NCJ 228230 (Dec. 2009), at 3.

[3] http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/cc_HiT_CriminalRecords_profile_1.pdf

[4] JPI Report: http://www.justicepolicy.org/news/1909

[5] https://clsphila.org/sites/default/files/get-help/RESOURCE%20-%20Employment%20and%20Crim%20Records%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf

[6] http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/cc_HiT_CriminalRecords_profile_1.pdf

[7] http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/a-reckoning-in-philadelphia/472092/?utm_source=SFFB

[8] http://articles.philly.com/2015-10-01/news/67015543_1_poverty-rate-deep-poverty-philadelphians

[9] https://clsphila.org/sites/default/files/get-help/Pardon%20Guide%20NEW.pdf

[10] https://www.governor.pa.gov/governor-wolf-signs-criminal-history-sealing-expansion-bill-into-law/

[11] www.amazon.com/Just-Mercy-Story-Justice-Redemption/dp/081298496X

1 Comment

  1. Opening Doors for Students and Clients: Temple Law Students and Criminal Record Expungements in Philadelphia - Voices at Temple said,

    March 17, 2016 at 10:55 am

    […] This article originally appeared on the PSJD Blog. […]

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