The Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School partners with Kansas Legal Services, Neighborhood Legal Services, and Pittsburgh-Area Law Schools on Criminal Record-Clearing Project in Kansas and Western Pennsylvania
Kansas Legal Services, Inc. (KLS), Neighborhood Legal Services (NLS), the Duquesne University School of Law Civil Rights clinical program, and students and professors at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law are joining forces with the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School (A2J Lab) for a project to expunge and seal criminal records.
Nearly one in three people have a criminal record—many with only minor convictions, and others arrested but never convicted. Due to advances in background-checking technology, criminal records are more easily accessible than ever, and research suggests that even a minor arrest record could create lifelong barriers, particularly in areas such as securing employment or housing.
Jim Greiner, the Honorable S. William Green Professor of Public Law at Harvard Law School and Faculty Director of the A2J Lab, said, “The law doesn’t just allow potential employers to screen out people with criminal records. In some instances, the law requires employers to reject people with records. And some research suggests that having even a minor criminal record can be a barrier to nearly all basic necessities, including housing. The question is, can some kind of record-clearing (like expungement or sealing) help? Or do we live in an age in which no information, including criminal record information, can be suppressed once it gets out?”
KLS, NLS, the Duquesne clinic, and students and professors at Pitt Law currently provide legal services to help people get criminal records expunged. However, very few people who are eligible seek assistance. Research shows that only about 1 in 20 people eligible for clearing of criminal records actually pursue it.
Renee Danser, Associate Director of Research and Strategic Partnerships for the A2J Lab, said, “The forms you need to file an expungement case in court are complex. And it can be hard to find the information you need to fill them out. A lot of people who try to do it without any kind of legal help or guidance just give up. Current funding for civil legal aid and free legal help for expungement and record- clearing services only meets a fraction of the need.”
This project seeks to change that by increasing the availability of record-clearing legal services and self- help resources. The program collaborators have planned events across Kansas and western Pennsylvania to inform people about record-clearing, how it works, and what resources are available. The project will connect people with attorneys and provide access to self-help materials to guide them through the expungement process. The Pennsylvania materials were developed by students and professors at Pitt, Duquesne, and Harvard Law Schools. Additionally, program participants will contribute to a gold- standard randomized evaluation that will create evidence about the results of these legal services and record-clearing. Every eligible participant will receive some sort of legal help, along with the knowledge of what they are entitled to under the law.
By starting the project now, the Pennsylvania team has the opportunity to inform people about a major change in criminal record-clearing. Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Act, passed last year by overwhelming margins in the General Assembly and signed by Governor Tom Wolf, provides for automatic sealing of some criminal records without the need for a court case. “The idea is that if we remove these out-of-
date or irrelevant records from the public eye, individuals might obtain the jobs and housing they need to resume their lives as contributing members of society,” said Danser.
The Kansas project expands on partnerships in place with volunteer lawyers and courts to provide community events focused on expungement. “Whenever we hold one of these events, hundreds of people attend. The need is there. This project will allow us to expand our efforts across the state,” according to Marilyn Harp, Executive Director of Kansas Legal Services, Inc.
“It’s a win for everyone,” Greiner said. “Kansans and Pennsylvanians get more legal help or guidance to allow them to clear a criminal record and change the course of their life. Students get a great experience helping real people resolve legal barriers to employment and housing. And we’ll generate evidence about what works in this area, evidence that may support an expansion of automatic record-clearing, or of legal services for record clearing, in the future.”
Elements of this project have been made possible in part by grants from the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Donor Advised Fund, and from the Charles Koch Foundation.
For more information, please contact:
Prof. Jim Greiner (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Ms. Renee Danser (email@example.com)