During spring break, a group of us volunteered at the Legal Advocacy and Resource Center (LARC) of Greater Boston Legal Services. We assisted the organization with its CORI project and guided clients through the process of getting convictions and non-convictions on their criminal records sealed. For certain clients, we conducted preliminary intake interviews and provided information as to how they could obtain their CORI records. For those who did not have a copy at hand, we helped them determine which charges could be sealed, dependent on time period limitations and the nature of a given conviction or non-conviction. We also explained to them which procedure would be the most appropriate—either by mail (which would require a Petition to Seal 100A form to be mailed to the Office of the Commissioner of Probation) or in court (which would require a court petition, a Motion to Seal 100C form, and an affidavit).
I worked with clients who dealt with the latter process and drafted affidavits that detailed the challenges they faced due to their CORI. A client had been charged several years ago with assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, but was eventually found not guilty due to insanity. Since then, he has been receiving help from mental health associations in the area and has been proactive about seeking employment and housing. He completed a vocational degree the summer of 2013, and plans to take the certification exam for his profession in the near future. However, information about his past charge still appears on his CORI, and this has created overwhelming barriers for him. Companies he had applied to for a job would conduct a criminal background check, and afterward, notify him that he could not be hired due to his CORI. His application to the Boston Housing Authority was rejected three times, on the basis of his criminal record. As a result, he has not been able to move out of his transitional housing in greater Boston. In turn, sealing his criminal record would provide him with a second chance, so that his options would not be unfairly restricted by a single case that was ultimately dismissed by a judge.
The clients we encountered through the CORI project all shared the same hope: they wanted a second chance. I remember a particular conversation I had with a fellow volunteer halfway through spring break. My colleague had taken on a case where the client had a federal drug conviction in a different state, and had called LARC to see if she could get her record expunged. For the past couple of days, he had contacted courts, prosecutors, defense lawyers, federal defenders, and other legal aid societies only to face dead ends. One lawyer had bluntly told him to stop searching because he was not going to get anywhere. But, my colleague refused to give up, and with perseverance, he was able to find an attorney who was willing to take on the client’s case! She had not dealt with such a case before, but she told my colleague that a lack of precedent should not be the deterring factor. It became clear to us on the cab ride home that the criminal justice system prioritizes judgment over mercy, to the point that those who have made mistakes but want to change are prevented from doing so. The system also does not provide room for context-specific analysis, whereby individuals are judged solely on what they had done wrong, with little inquiry into why they had done what they had and what a judgment would mean for them and their family. The conversation reminded me of a cooperating witness I had met last year, when I was working as a paralegal in the US Attorney’s Office – EDNY. She had taken a plea agreement for accounting fraud charges, but because of her criminal record, she was unable to find employment. It made sense that she needed to face the consequences of her actions, but it just didn’t seem fair that they would haunt her for the rest of her life. She was the primary breadwinner of her family who had to pay for her husband’s medical bills while taking care of her two sick children. Didn’t she deserve a second chance? Didn’t our clients deserve a second chance?
Toward the end of the week, our supervisor gave us a chance to help with intake requests and conduct preliminary interviews with clients waiting in the reception area. Collectively, the clients brought a wide range of cases, from housing and employment to immigration and child custody. The client I took on had sued the building manager of his former public housing unit, for harassment and compensation for his fiancée’s physical injury. Last month, police officers had come by his room in the early morning and had told him that his fiancée who was staying with him was trespassing. She was escorted from the premises, and because of the incident, had to go to the emergency room the following day. Through the conversation, it became clear, in the way he aired out his grievances, that he just wanted someone to listen to his story. He wanted to be understood, for me and others to know of the injustice he had gone through, of the “lack of respect that is shown to people like [him] and his fiancée.” He had initiated the lawsuit, for no one had taken the time to listen, and it was the only way to force them to. For law, he seemed to claim, could be used to fight against the inequality between the powerful and the powerless. For law served to preserve the respect that needed to be given to each individual, regardless of what he was or where he came from.
I am very grateful for having been provided this opportunity to volunteer with LARC this spring break. The clients I met along the way have taught me not only the importance of placing mercy before judgment but also the need for law to be used as an instrument for social change. The attorneys and volunteers who work at Greater Boston Legal Services are truly inspiring, and I know that the community they serve are thankful for their kind hearts and the daily sacrifices they make. I hope that the passion and grace they have shown me will translate into my own work and life.