Below is an excerpt from a December 2 op-ed published on HuffPost. The piece was written by Lonnie Powers, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), in support of increased civil legal aid funding.
Last month, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and legislative leaders announced the formation of a bipartisan working group that will partner with the Council of State Governments (CSG) to review our criminal justice system in order to reduce recidivism and incarceration rates. The CSG’s Justice Center has been working with states across the country to apply its Justice Reinvestment model to analyze criminal justice data and help policymakers pinpoint what is driving recidivism, so that they may craft cost-effective solutions.
The effort is part of a nationwide trend toward dramatically reducing our country’s bloated prison population, which includes a long-awaited, bipartisan federal criminal justice reform bill. As our country moves toward reversing decades of overly harsh sentences for non-violent crimes and mandatory “three strikes” life sentences, criminal justice reform packages must also incorporate civil legal assistance for those newly released from prison.
Civil legal assistance is necessary to help avoid the stigma associated with having a criminal record, which can be devastating to people trying to rebuild their lives after a period of incarceration; it’s well known that having a criminal record is a serious obstacle to employment. Background checks are sometimes necessary for the safety and security of the workplace, but many employers refuse to consider anyone with a criminal record (even though such blanket practices violate civil rights laws). Worse, those in Boston affected most by these policies come from the city’s communities of color, where rates of incarceration―as they are nationwide―are much higher than among white populations. Meanwhile, the existence of a criminal record can mask existing racism by giving employers an excuse not to hire an otherwise qualified applicant.
Civil legal aid can help those with a criminal record navigate the complicated process of expunging or sealing their records. Expunging a record means that the record is destroyed and, for all intents and purposes, never existed in the first place. If someone has been the victim of identity theft and a criminal record exists with their name, a judge may order that the record be changed so that their name is replaced with “Jane Doe” or “John Doe.” Juvenile arrest records that are kept by police, and abuse prevention orders obtained under fraudulent circumstances are also eligible for expungement.