By Joseph Laizure and Tolu Adewale
“To remove legal barriers to economic opportunity.” That phrase is part of the mission statement of Legal Aid of North Carolina, a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal help to low-income people in civil cases. The phrase is important, because it reflects the fact that Legal Aid’s goal is not merely to serve poor people, but to do so in a way that actually lifts people out of poverty. One serious economic barrier facing Legal Aid clients is the fact that 1 in 5 North Carolinians have a criminal record, which means they are effectively shut out of the job market.
Anyone seeking work in the United States is highly likely to undergo a criminal background check. The common assumption is that background checks keep businesses safe by screening out dangerous individuals. The reality is that they exclude many ordinary and qualified people from employment. Millions of Americans cannot find work because a background check has turned up an old or low-level criminal conviction, or even a charge for which the job applicant was never found guilty. The widespread sale of public records to private background check companies ensures that once a criminal record is made, it will be available indefinitely and everywhere.
The charge or conviction may be ten, twenty, or thirty years old. It may have nothing to do with the job. It may even be a record of someone else’s encounter with the justice system – files at private background check companies and even public records are occasionally attributed to the wrong individual. More than half of employers are discouraged from hiring someone with any kind of criminal record. Bias against people with criminal records is even stronger when applied to people of color. While a criminal record reduces a white job applicant’s chances of being called back for an interview by half, a criminal record reduces a black job applicant’s chances by two-thirds. For many Americans, a single encounter with the justice system may create an impossibly high barrier to getting any job at all.
Thanks to a partnership between Equal Justice Works, AmeriCorps, and legal aid groups across the country, more than three dozen attorneys are serving as fellows in the Employment Opportunity Legal Corps to help individuals overcome private bias or other barriers to finding work or stable housing.
Equal Justice Works/AmeriCorps fellows are instrumental in drawing attention to the collateral consequences of a criminal record. Everyone is familiar with the direct consequences of a criminal conviction – imagine a judge banging the gavel and sentencing a defendant to prison, fines, or probation. But loss of employment opportunity is a collateral consequence of a criminal record, that is, a consequence imposed by something other than criminal law. While private bias against people with criminal records is one type of collateral consequence, there are many others. In North Carolina, one-third of occupations require a license, and many convictions will disqualify a person from obtaining approval from a licensing board.
Legal Aid of North Carolina has established the Second Chance Employment & Housing Project, which includes two full-time Equal Justice Works/AmeriCorps fellows, to reach individuals across the state who need legal assistance to overcome employment and housing barriers. In North Carolina, a labyrinth of statutes makes low-level nonviolent convictions eligible for a one-time expunction. While a few counties provide self-help centers or other resources so that people without an attorney can file for an expunction, the assistance of a licensed attorney who is familiar with expunction laws can ensure that an applicant can successfully navigate the complex legal process and receive the maximum benefit under the law.
One Second Chance Project client wanted to join the Marines, but was told that his dismissed felony charges would keep him from being able to enlist. We were able to expunge his entire criminal record, making him able to achieve his dream and serve his country. Another Second Chance Project client was eligible to expunge a felony drug conviction, but needed immediate assistance to avoid imminent homelessness. While his expunction petition was working its way through the court, the Second Chance Project obtained a court-issued Certificate of Relief, another legal tool useful for helping people with criminal records, which convinced the public housing authority that he was not a threat.
These are just some of the thousands of clients Legal Aid has served since the launch of the Second Chance Project. In the past two years alone, Legal Aid has closed nearly 3,000 expunction cases, conducted two dozen free legal clinics for people seeking an expunction and sponsored more than a dozen trainings for private attorneys, some of whom have gone on to represent Legal Aid clients pro bono.
The impact is tremendous. Studies show that an expungement increases an individual’s income by $6,500, on average, in the first year alone. The efforts of legal aid groups and private attorneys working pro bono across the country are removing barriers and restoring hope for hundreds of thousands of Americans. But millions more need assistance. With the growing interest in criminal justice reform, an investment in relief from collateral consequences now would pay huge dividends in the future.
Joseph Laizure graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School, and currently serves as an Equal Justice Works/AmeriCorps Fellow at Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Second Chance Employment and Housing Project, where he focuses on commercial background checks.
Tolu Adewale graduated from Duke University School of Law, and currently serves as an Equal Justice Works/AmeriCorps Fellow at Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Second Chance Employment and Housing Project, where he focuses on Certificates of Relief.