Law students help job-seekers trying to clear records

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Tonya Young is studying to be a nurse assistant. It has been 10 years since her last conviction for retail theft, and three years since she last used crack cocaine.

But in the job market, her work at overcoming her past doesn't seem to matter, and she's found her record is one challenge she can't put behind her.

"Your past haunts you," she said.

Ms. Young, 42, is getting help from a Duquesne Law School program in which students coach job-seekers with criminal records through an often-arduous pardon process in hopes of re-entering the workforce with a clean slate. She is also in a NAACP program in which law students work with people seeking legal help.

Once a month, the 12 students in a yearlong six-credit course with the Bill of Rights-Civil Rights Litigation Clinic attend a workshop put on by Pittsburgh's Formerly Convicted Citizens Project to provide legal consultation and help fill out applications to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.

"I never knew about this program, but if I did I would've been here sooner," said Ms. Young.

"Everyone deserves a second chance," said Mike McElwee, a 25-year-old Duquesne law student from Philadelphia. "You have people who have a disorderly conduct misdemeanor who can't get a job for something they did when I was 5 years old. "Everyone makes mistakes. It's just that some people get caught in their mistake."

But mistakes in Pennsylvania aren't easy to fix.

Expungements are only given for non-convictions (verdict of not guilty; dismissal; withdrawal of charges, or a decision by the prosecutor to decline to pursue the case) or to people with limited criminal records who are offered Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition or Probation Without Verdict by a district attorney's office.

For many, the only avenue is a pardon, which can take years from application to clemency.

Applicants fills out a lengthy form and must provide extensive documentation, including housing and employment history, delinquencies on payments, education, military and community service and letters of support.

"For some people who have had a drug addiction and may have been transient, to try to gather all of that information can be a daunting task," said Tracey McCants Lewis, assistant professor of law and director of the law clinics at Duquesne University.

And the odds of making it through that process are slim.

The state received 526 applications for pardon in 2011; 140 were granted a public hearing in which the convicted must represent him or herself.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell granted 34 pardons last year. Gov. Tom Corbett granted 40.

Mrs. McCants Lewis said without a pardon, many people are shut out from job opportunities as soon as they check a box on an application indicating that they've been charged with a crime.

Next year, she anticipates that fewer pardons will be granted, although the number of applicants remains steady.

Pardons are granted on a case-by-case basis, Mrs. McCants Lewis said, but in general people need to show that they haven't been in trouble for a while and they have somehow rehabilitated themselves.

"Whether it is showing they are engaged in religious practices, are employed or have employment history or community involvement ... . They are looking for people who are truly saying 'Look, I did that crime and did that because of such and such and now I'm rehabilitated and I have done things to change my life around.' "

In addition to working at the Pardon Me clinics, the Duquesne students participate in monthly walk-in sessions at the NAACP in the Hill District, where potential clients have 15 minutes to pitch discrimination complaints.

If the students determine there are grounds for a case, the clinic may elect to represent the client at no cost.

On Friday, cases ranged from a woman placed on indefinite suspension for throwing cheese, to another of an African American woman who said she was taunted with a black stuffed monkey at work.

Ashley Clemens said the stories she hears at the NAACP give her a window into a world she wouldn't otherwise experience.

"I try very hard to be color blind instead of color conscious," the 27-year-old law student said. "It's disappointing to see what people still have to deal with."

Most of these cases are settled out of court. In 2011, the students settled 10 employment discrimination cases for $76,000.

"It's a win-win. We get experience, they get free help," said Carolyn Slayton, a 24-year-old law student. "Some people don't have any place else to go."

Jacquelyn McCutchen, a certified medical assistant who cares for her parents, will be drug-free for 10 years on March 1.

"I've been turned down because of a 17-year-old record," said Ms. McCutchen, 52, who has found that her aged but lengthy criminal history follows her as she searches for work.

She visited the clinic last week to see if she can get help there, and said she is grateful for the opportunity to come to the clinic and have someone guide her through the pardon process.

"These are people who are offering solutions and helping you attain them."


Taryn Luna: 412-263-1985 or tluna@post-gazette.com


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