August 8, 2018. When thinking about the criminal justice system, it’s easy to forget that there is more to it than just people being incarcerated. There is the forgotten half of the system as well – for those who come home after being incarcerated. For some, it is not so simple just to “move on” because of the various and difficult barriers that they may face. But the Legal Action Center has made it not only one of their missions not to forget those who return home, but also to aid them in overcoming any discrimination they may face in obtaining employment or housing.
My internship at the Legal Action Center this summer was definitely a first-hand learning experience that I won’t soon forget. I was eager to get my first client, assist them with filling out applications, so that they can successfully “move past” that stage of their life and have greater opportunities. My assumptions on how simple the process would be were naïve at best. When I met my first client, L., my assignment seemed straightforward: assist her in filling out an application for her to receive a Certificate of Good Conduct to increase her employment opportunities. The first step was to review her RAP sheet and make sure that all the information was accurate. It was here that we ran into our first big obstacle. The RAP sheet revealed that L. had two open warrants stemming from an arrest in the mid-nineties.
I informed L. that she would have to go the court to get the warrants taken care of before we could continue on with her Certificate application. Her response told me that what I had assumed would be an easy fix was a much bigger deal. L. replied that the warrants would just have to stay open and she wouldn’t be completing her Certificate application. At first, I could not understand why she would want to just give up on the application so quickly. It wasn’t until she explained to me the gravity of the situation that I felt ashamed of my naivety for not grasping the situation. L. had spent the last two decades walking the straight and narrow so that she would never have to step foot inside another courthouse again, or another prison for that matter, despite the benefits it could grant her in the long run.
I tried to assure her that the situation would be okay by reminding her of the tremendous changes she has made in her life. I also emphasized the fact that she would be voluntarily going into the court after all these years to resolve these two warrants, which presumably would weigh in favor of her not getting arrested after identifying herself to the officers, although I could not guarantee that she would not be arrested. In theory, any police officer who ran her name and saw her open warrants could arrest her immediately, at any time. After much reluctance and reassurance, she agreed to go resolve the warrants, if I agreed to accompany her. At the courthouse L. was visibly apprehensive, but that melted away with time as she realized that she was not alone and this was something that simply needed to get done if she ever wanted to put this behind her. Several hours later, after sitting in the courtroom waiting for her name to be called, both warrants were eventually dismissed and sealed. A victory for L.!
The entire ordeal put into perspective for me that getting past a prior conviction for a client is not a simple process and should never be addressed as such. Although someone is faced with new and exciting possibilities for their future, the current structure of American law and policy still permit that person to be hounded for years by their criminal justice involvement. As a future advocate, I will always be mindful of that.
Simone James is a rising 3L at St. John’s University School of Law, where she will participate in the Criminal Defense clinic next fall. During her internship at Legal Action Center, Simone has worked on sealing motions and applications for certificates of good conduct and certificates of relief from disabilities. She has also worked on issues surrounding New York’s 911 Good Samaritan Law and criminal liability for individuals who seek emergency medical care after an overdose. Simone would like to go into practice as a criminal defense attorney upon graduation.