For many, September 21 is a memorable day because it marks the beginning of fall, but here at Legal Aid, this date marked the beginning of National Expungement Week!
As part of the efforts to raise awareness about expungement and other remedies available to the roughly one in eight DC residents with a criminal conviction, Legal Aid has planned a two part blog series. Part one will highlight the services provided by Legal Aid’s Reentry Justice Project, on an individual and systemic level, and part two will focus on the remedy of record sealing.
As many as one in three Americans have some type of criminal record. Unfortunately, a criminal record can create significant barriers to economic and social opportunities, often called collateral consequences, long after a person completes their sentence. Expungement – or record sealing, as it is known in DC – is one tool to overcoming these barriers.
In addition to the traditional legal needs of Legal Aid’s client community – the parent navigating a child custody arrangement, the DC resident attempting to gain access to essential safety-net benefits, or the tenant seeking to avoid wrongful eviction – returning citizens have distinct needs due to collateral consequences.
For many years, Legal Aid attorneys witnessed the distinct, various, and harsh ways a criminal record impacts our clients. In 2015, Legal Aid described a first-hand view of the costs of having a criminal record: “[w]e know when our clients are unable to secure housing due to criminal history . . . [w]e have met families who are unable to provide for their children because an adult household member is facing barriers to employment.”
At that time, a dedicated group of attorneys and staff, from each of Legal Aid’s substantive practice areas, joined forces and created the Reentry Justice Project. Through the project, Legal Aid provides holistic, wrap-around legal services to individuals experiencing barriers from a criminal record.
The project began by assisting our clients in filing motions to have their criminal records sealed. Without assistance, the complex and difficult laws are inaccessible to unrepresented individuals. Last fall, I joined Legal Aid as a Skadden Fellow, further expanding the project’s scope and reach; my work primarily focuses on providing representation to individuals who have had prior involvement with the criminal justice system.
In addition to record sealing, Legal Aid now assists clients with a wide range of matters related to their criminal convictions: complaints based upon violations of “ban the box” laws in housing and employment, challenges to housing denials based upon criminal records, and appeals of denials of public benefits.
We also advocate for policy changes before the DC Council. With the ever changing legal landscape, we will continue to advance the needs of DC’s returning citizens.
If you or someone you know needs legal assistance related to a reentry issue, contact Legal Aid at (202) 628-1161 or visit our intake sites during walk-in hours.