Michigan Reentry Law Wiki

Civil Disabilities and Criminal Convictions: Why Legal Services Attorneys Should Represent People with Criminal Records

From Reentry

Prepared in May 2005 by
Miriam Aukerman
Western Michigan Legal Services
89 Ionia NW
Grand Rapids, MI 49503

This manual was supported by a grant from the
Soros Justice Fellowship Program of the Open Society Institute

This publication is not intended to replace individual legal research. While every effort has been made to ensure that the information in this manual is current, neither the author nor Western Michigan Legal Services can be responsible for any inaccuracies or omissions.

Sara went to prison for much the same reason that many people go to prison: she had no money and so she made some bad choices. She was getting evicted and decided to write several checks she couldn’t cover in order to keep a roof over her head. She was originally sentenced to probation, but when she missed a couple of probation appointments because her new baby was sick, she ended up in prison. When she got out, her felony record kept her from getting a job. Poor and desperate, she asked if there was anything our office could do. We successfully petitioned to expunge Sara’s record. With the felony off her record, Sara landed a job as a receptionist in a local law firm. She’s making good money, is off of welfare, and is hoping to start school to become a paralegal. Sara’s case is an example of the tremendous impact that legal services attorneys can have when we help people with criminal records address the obstacles that those records create.

As legal services attorneys our mission is to use legal tools to help the most vulnerable and oppressed in our society meet their basic needs. Few people in our society are more vulnerable or oppressed than people with criminal records. People with criminal records are usually poor. They are also disproportionately people of color, which reflects the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. 53% of the prisoners released by the Michigan Department of Corrections in 2003 were African-American. People with records typically lack education and job skills: of those entering the Michigan prison system, approximately 50% do not have a high school education, and almost all the rest have no more than a high school diploma or GED. Many people with criminal records are mentally ill. National figures suggest that approximately 14% of those being released from prison have a mental illness. Finally, people with records frequently have substance abuse problems. One national study found that 84% of prisoners were involved in drugs or alcohol at the time of the offense.

All of these factors make people with criminal records look a lot like other legal services clients. But in addition to the obstacles that face our other clients, people with criminal records must confront the legal and social stigma of conviction. People with criminal records are the one group that it is still ok to hate. Countless federal, state and local laws deprive people with criminal records of employment opportunities, housing, occupational licenses, public assistance, financial aid, etc. Moreover, two-thirds of employers will not knowingly hire a person with a criminal record. Private hiring rates for African-Americans with convictions are even worse: one study showed that the call-back rate for job interviews is less than 5% if an African-American applicant admits to a drug conviction. Unsurprisingly, other research shows that two-thirds of people with records remain unemployed three years after release. Housing presents similar problems. National figures suggest that 15-27% of prisoners expect to end up in homeless shelters upon release.

The sheer number of people with criminal records is staggering. One in 37 Americans has had prison experience, with 17% of African-American men and almost 8% of Hispanic men having served prison time. In Michigan alone, approximately 1000 prisoners return to the community each month. Of course not everyone who has a criminal record goes to prison, and so the number of people with records is much higher still when one includes those individuals. Indeed, by some estimates, 30% of adult Americans will spend a substantial portion of their lives with a criminal record.

Legal services attorneys are often reluctant to work on issues involving criminal records. Some argue that we should help the “good poor people” and not the “bad poor people.” I submit that this is a false dichotomy. Many of our clients whom we assume are “good poor people” actually have criminal records. We just don’t see or address these records because we don’t ask about them. Moreover, many of the “bad poor people” ended up with convictions because they did not get the legal or social assistance they needed in the past. If Sara hadn’t been facing an eviction, she would not have written bad checks. Furthermore, many of the “bad poor people” have turned their lives around. They may have paid their debt to society years ago, but they continue to pay the price for having a record.

Other legal services attorneys argue that criminal records work is simply not as pressing as, say, preventing evictions or protecting income from garnishment. Yet criminal records issues are at the root of many such problems. By ensuring that people with criminal records have access to employment, housing, public assistance, etc., we can forestall a whole series of catastrophes that form so much of our regular workload.

Finally, legal services attorneys frequently worry that they are precluded from working on these issues under the LSC restrictions. In fact, as set out in the CLASP memo which is included here, legal services attorneys can work on a wide range of issues related to prior criminal convictions.

In struggling for justice for low-income people, we should also champion the rights of those who face the additional obstacle of a criminal record. This manual represents a first attempt to bring together resources for Michigan legal services providers who want to do just that.

Miriam Aukerman

May 23, 2005
Soros Justice Fellow

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