Civil Legal Aid Offers a Second Chance and Keeps Americans Working

A person in the shadows.

April is Second Chance Month and, with that, we celebrate the important role legal aid organizations and public defense providers can play in helping people with criminal records. There are tens of thousands civil collateral consequences of having a criminal record, such as having to disclose prior convictions on job applications, difficulty securing an occupational license, or losing one’s drivers’ license. Receiving legal services can help stabilize housing and reduce barriers to employment for the almost 75 million, or one-in-three, American adults facing these consequences.

Every state provides some sort of record clearing remedy – like sealing records of arrests that do not lead to a conviction, judicial record clearing of minor offenses, expungement, set-asides, and pardons. Whatever they call it and under whatever circumstances, every state has laws that allow people to seek to have their record cleared of their past criminal record. Lawyers help in several ways:

  • some public defender offices provide post-conviction record clearing assistance;
  • many civil legal aid programs help with record clearing as well as other collateral consequences (like reinstating a drivers’ license, modifying child support orders, and helping with occupational licenses); and
  • a growing number of law schools and universities have created projects to clear records.

Why do criminal records continue to define and negatively impact those who have them after they complete their sentence? Collateral consequences have devastating impacts on their lives and hinder successful reentry. Those with criminal records have lower earning potential, are more likely to be caught in a cycle of debt, be less educated, experience housing insecurity, and are more likely to have unstable family relationships. They experience an unemployment rate, on average, of about 27 percent (compared to just five percent for the national average). With the help of legal aid providers, barriers to employment can be lowered, which studies have shown increase wages and employment rates and lower recidivism or reoffending.

Specifically, researchers at UC Berkeley sampled those who received a record clearing intervention and saw boosts to employment rates and their average real earnings. Similarly, last month, researchers at the University of Michigan used set-aside records from Michigan State Police and linked these records with wage information from Michigan’s unemployment insurance system. They showed that employment increased and wages rose 25 percent once individuals had received a set-aside. They also found “very low rates of recidivism, just 6% of all set-aside recipients are rearrested within five years of receiving their set-aside.”

But it’s not just employment outcomes that are affected. After interviewing individuals with criminal records who received a set aside or expungement, researchers found that those individuals experienced cognitive improvements and a feeling of a new identity. Legal aid can have far-reaching effects, like improving housing stability by reducing evictions, improving the quality of housing, and assisting with child support issues to ensure that payments accurately reflect ability to pay.

Tip: The Justice in Government Project’s Toolkit has 15 comprehensive research summaries outlining how legal aid can work with people who have a criminal record to reduce barriers to employment, help children in foster care, improve housing stability, and more!

Acknowledging the positive impact of legal aid has led several states to incorporate legal aid services in existing programs:

  • When Californians voted for the California Community Reinvestment Grants program, the California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development included “legal services to address barriers to reentry.”
  • In Louisiana, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services uses Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for a Clean Slate Expungement Project to cover the cost of expungement filing fees and legal services delivered through a combination of staff and pro bono attorneys who handle expungements from start to finish.
  • A few months ago, Workforce Tulsa adopted a new supportive services policy  that includes providing legal aid to jobseekers to help with barriers to employment, such as expunging or sealing old criminal records, obtaining or reinstating a revoked driver’s license or occupational license, resolving credit report problems, filing for domestic violence restraining orders, and assisting veterans with accessing healthcare, education grants, and housing services using Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) federal formula funds.

With state leaders leveraging legal aid to further their policy goals – such as improving public safety, ensuring access to affordable housing, and increasing employment opportunities – all while making government more efficient, fair, and effective, individuals with a criminal record are benefiting across the country. By assisting with the associated collateral consequences, legal aid is an essential partner in programs designed to improve the lives of Americans.

To learn more about how your state can expand legal services, check out the Justice in Government Toolkit for information about funding, successful state and local government partnerships, summaries of the relevant research, and other helpful tools.

Karen Lash, Director and Practitioner-in-Residence, Justice Programs Office,  American University School of Public Affairs & Casey Chiappetta, Graduate Research Associate,  Justice Programs Office, American University School of Public Affairs