Commentary: Civil legal aid needed to help expunge criminal records, reduce poverty

By Gaetan J. Alfano,

Deborah R. Gross,

and Mary F. Platt

Pennsylvania legislators have recently given people with old, minor criminal records the opportunity to become more productive members of society.

Act 5, sponsored by State Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Phila.), went into effect on Nov. 12. This important reform measure allows individuals convicted of minor misdemeanors who served their sentences and remained free of arrest or prosecution for 10 years to petition a court to have their records sealed from public view.

While a sealed record can still be accessed by law enforcement and state licensing agencies, it will not be available to employers, landlords, or the public. Act 5, along with existing laws that permit expungement of certain arrest records, will help dismantle barriers to employment, housing, and education for thousands who will now gain access to new opportunities that a clean criminal background check will provide.

Minor criminal arrests and conviction records can operate as lifetime barriers to securing basic life necessities, such as housing, jobs, and educational opportunities, creating a vicious cycle of recidivism, poverty, and a diminished quality of life. One of the most effective strategies to fight the collateral consequences of a criminal record is to file a legal petition to expunge or seal the record.

Already the poorest big city in America, Philadelphia has the highest deep poverty rate of the nation's 10 most populous cities. Philadelphia also has one of the highest incarceration rates, and approximately one in three - or approximately 500,000 Philadelphians - have a criminal record, many due to minor offenses. Thousands of impoverished Philadelphians can't afford to hire an attorney to file a civil petition to expunge or seal criminal records and address other dire, life-changing legal issues. Only 20 percent of low-income Philadelphians are able to obtain a free civil legal aid attorney because the programs are understaffed, underfunded, and unable to meet escalating client demand.

The Philadelphia Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division, in partnership with Community Legal Services, the Office of Mayor Kenney, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Criminal Division, and Rep. Harris, hosted a free, citywide expungement and sealing clinic to coincide with the effective date of Act 5. Approximately 200 members of the legal community - from lawyers to paralegals to law school students - volunteered their time and talent to help our community members expunge and seal their criminal records by filing petitions for them. Hundreds of eligible people were able to have petitions filed to get their criminal records expunged or sealed.

While these pro bono efforts and reforms are extremely helpful, hundreds of thousands of people still need civil legal aid to clear their criminal records and deal with other legal issues that often plague people who are trying to escape the cycle of poverty. Some of these issues include securing housing and public benefits, accessing education, clearing up old court fines, correcting inaccurate credit ratings, obtaining driver's licenses, and resolving family law problems.

Civil legal aid has a positive impact on economic development and helps to restore the lives of people with criminal records. People with a sealed or expunged criminal record have a better chance of securing housing and pursuing careers. Their families benefit from the opportunity for income increases, while other obstacles facing impoverished families are eliminated.

Ultimately, communities across the tristate area become safer as a result of civil legal aid, because individuals whose basic human needs are met have an incentive to remain crime-free. While multiple recent initiatives work to combat barriers to reentry and eliminate the stigma of criminal records, the lack of funding for legal aid inhibits the progression of this movement.

At a time when our city is working to achieve criminal justice reform and seeking answers to the crippling problem of poverty, it is more important than ever to invest in civil legal aid. A study commissioned by the Pennsylvania Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts has determined that for every $1 spent on legal aid in Pennsylvania, there is an $11 return in economic benefits. An investment in legal aid means an investment in fighting poverty and eliminating barriers to reentry, as well as an investment in a solution that boosts our economy and strives to obtain justice for all.

We encourage those in positions of power to help make these funds available for the betterment of our community-at-large, as an investment in civil legal aid will ultimately help to transform the social and economic landscape of Philadelphia.

Gaetan J. Alfano is chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association (PBA). GJA@Pietragallo.com

Deborah R. Gross is chancellor-elect of the PBA. DGross@kcr-law.com

Mary F. Platt is vice chancellor of the PBA. mplatt@finemanlawfirm.com

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