Since 1989, the Pennsylvania Bar Foundation, the philanthropic partner of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, has recognized and rewarded outstanding pro bono service with the annual presentation of the Louis J. Goffman Award.
This year, the Foundation honors Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE), a nonprofit legal aid organization founded in 2010 by four civil rights lawyers dedicated to delivering direct legal services to communities most affected by criminal history record information and other social justice inequalities.
Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity has just two full-time attorneys and four attorneys who contribute significant pro bono hours annually, a remarkably small organization to have achieved such big results. Its co-founder and Executive Director is Michael B. Lee, a member of the PBA Leadership Institute Class of 2013 – 2014, a 2015 recipient of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network’s Excellence Award, a 2015 recipient of the Hispanic Bar Association’s La Justica Award and the Barristers Association’s Outstanding Young Attorney of 2015. PLSE Staff Attorney Zane Johnson is an Equal Justice Works Ameri-Corps Legal Fellow and the recipient of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Eve Biskind Klothen Law Student Award for his commitment to pro bono service. Providing sustained pro bono service are four highly experienced attorneys: PLSE co-founder and Board Chair Ryan Allen Hancock, of Counsel and chair of the Employment Law Department of Willig, Williams & Davidson; part-time PLSE Staff Attorney and PA Bar Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Carl “Tobey” Oxholm III; of Counsel for PLSE Michael Hardiman, former Chief Counsel of the Pennsylvania Human Relationship Commission who manages FEOP; and Henry M. Sias, of Counsel for PLSE, an appellate oriented civil rights and immigration lawyer who manages PLSE’s appellate practice.
Every interaction with the police and the criminal justice system becomes an entry on an individual’s criminal record. Those entries remain part of the person’s criminal record, even if the charges do not result in conviction, and that record is publically available. With the rise of criminal background checks and more and more employers viewing criminal histories during the hiring process, the impact of a criminal record can result in “civil death,” creating barriers to employment, promotion, housing, professional licensing and government benefits in addition to the social stigma. PLSE’s Criminal Records Expungement Project provides free expungement services to low-income individuals with criminal history record information through more than 60 community-based clinics.
PLSE has streamlined the petitioning process and leveraged a pro bono workforce comprised of 200 law students drawn from the four neighboring law schools (the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, Temple University James E. Beasley School of Law, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law and Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law), 30 young lawyers and a consortium of community partners including bar associations, re-entry organizations, the People’s Emergency Center, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s STAR program, Mural Arts, Philadelphia Housing Authority, H.U.D and others to help thousands of low-income individuals move past the impediments and social stigma caused by a criminal record.
PLSE has filed approximately 7,000 expungement petitions. Over 95% of those petitions have been granted causing over 20,000 different “individual charges” to be eradicated. When it finds evidence of illegal employment discrimination, PLSE refers clients to the Fair Employment Opportunities Project (FEOP), an organization it helped to create in 2015. FEOP brings cases on behalf of job applicants whose rights under Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act may have been violated by potential employers. Working with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Public Interest Law Center and pro bono lawyers from the private bar, PLSE and the FEOP have successfully represented seven individuals unlawfully denied employment because of arrest or stale conviction information.
A future PLSE innovation is the Pardons Project. Through this initiative, PLSE clients who have successfully obtained expungements and have maintained a clean conviction record will be referred to practicing lawyers who help prepare applications for pardons and represent them before the Board of Pardons. The program anticipates using a blue ribbon panel of senior members of the criminal bar to review all draft applications. The panel will help determine what can be done to improve the quality of the applications, which applications should ultimately be represented by PLSE and which applications might be eligible for accelerated disposition by the Board of Pardons thanks to the investigative and preparatory work done by the project’s pro bono attorneys.