(Photo via facebook.com/PLSEphilly)
In 2015 alone, more than 640,000 people in the United States were released from state and federal prison, supposedly their debt to society paid. But the truth is, doing time can mean paying for the rest of your life.
“In Philadelphia alone, we subject roughly 400,000 of our neighbors to various forms of social ostracism based on criminal records to our own detriment and with no public safety benefit,” M. Zane Johnson, managing attorney for Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (or PLSE, pronounced “pulse”), wrote last month in an op-ed for The Legal Intelligencer.
This exclusion been likened to a civil death.
Mass incarceration has resulted in the creation of a second-class citizen class, primarily comprised of young men of color, who face a bevy of post-prison obstacles including voter disenfranchisement, immigration problems, inability to obtain certain occupational licenses, permanent ineligibility for public housing, food stamps and welfare assistance, and difficulty in returning to school because of federal student aid. Just to name a few.
“In a lot of ways,” Johnson said, “incarceration just never ends, and it imposes a disability in just about every situation. … At what point are we willing to give a person a chance?”
PLSE was founded in 2010 by three civil rights lawyers “to construct an alternative legal service model for low-income individuals affected by criminal records.” It’s run now by a handful of staffers and funded primarily via grants from the likes of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, the Barra Foundation and the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services.
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PLSE has since evolved more like a pearl — starting from agitation and growing more haphazardly than strategically.
This is because PLSE cofounder Mike Lee, who is now District Attorney Larry Krasner’s interim director of legislation and government affairs, always had a keen eye for disparities and wanted people to decide the services they needed: Lee said he is critical of traditional legal aid organizations that develop a program first and then find people to serve because it cuts out more people than it helps.
While at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law, Lee had a chance conversation with fellow student Ryan Hancock, now chair of the PLSE board, that set off his fascination with expungements. He learned that many people had very old charges for non-violent offenses that were now having an outsized effect on their lives.
While studying for the bar, Lee visited courts to observe the expungement process: “I saw that there were not many hearings done at the time and the arguments were not very sophisticated,” he said. Originally as a personal pro bono project, Lee started drumming up business for his future expungement practice in nontraditional ways.
“I got a table at a block party in West Philly and I had a big arrow that said, ‘Criminal Records Check,’” he said. “No one wanted to walk up.”
Once a drip of people started to come, Lee was already wondering how to scale the initiative. He began partnering with shelters and recovery houses. He rode the subway carrying an expungement flowchart showing the process. He visited barbershops.
It was his consistent presence that began to break down the distrust. In the meantime, he gave golf lesson to support himself; his mother worried that his law degree would never make him any money.
For Johnson, the issues of reentry and criminal justice issue have consumed him since he was at Temple University Beasley School of Law and began working with PLSE after graduating in 2016 as one of a national cohort of 33 Equal Justice Works’ AmeriCorps Legal Fellows; he was named managing attorney in January following Lee’s departure.
“We want to demystify the law,” Johnson said. “My goal is to help people take back their personal history.”
Now, he supervises PLSE’s Criminal Record Expungement Project and Fair Employment Opportunities Project, which helps low-income Philadelphians expunge their criminal records and encourages employers to comply with Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act (which restrict’s employers ability to refuse to hire those with records), respectively. He also manages a robust volunteer team.
“I never imagined that right out of school I would be leading an organization,” he said. “It is a dream opportunity that doesn’t come along too often.”
Since its inception, PLSE has filed approximately 7,000 expungement petitions, 95 percent of which those have been granted, causing over 20,000 individual charges to be eradicated. In 2017 alone, Johnson personally represented more than 350 clients, filing over 1,625 expungement petitions on their behalf with a success rate of over 98 percent, according to PLSE.
But because one in six Philadelphians have a criminal record, meeting individuals’ needs still results in numbers that are a small drop in a large bucket.
This June, Gov. Tom Wolf signed the bipartisan Clean Slate legislation into law in an effort to reduce the stigma that criminal records create. Under the new law, some types of records are automatically sealed from the public; it affects those with misdemeanors (shoplifting, harassment, disorderly conduct) who earn no further convictions after 10 years. If a person has more than one first-degree misdemeanor on their record, it can be sealed after 15 years; if more than three of any kind, 20 years.
Still, Johnson has a list of ongoing concerns: the unfairness of plea deals, the ineffectiveness of Ban the Box policies, the over-availability of criminal records of dubious accuracy on the internet, the limits of expungements.
His next focus is pardons. A pardon, when the governor erases a criminal record, is about the only way to erase felony and misdemeanor convictions. But the pardon process is expensive, bureaucratic and time-consuming. PLSE wants to do for pardons what they have done for the expungements by setting up “pardon hubs,” where people can be helped through the difficult process of attaining one.
Overall, though, the goal is policy change.
“It is a failure for me if 20 years from now we are working on the same issues,” Lee said.-30-
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