Two Civic Leaders Join PLSE Board of Directors

Two Civic Leaders Join PLSE Board of Directors

October 15, 2018. Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) announced today that two well-respected community leaders with very differing perspectives on the criminal justice system have joined its Board of Directors.

Nicole Hunt is the President of UNITEHERE LOCAL 634, a union that represents over 2,000 public sector school cafeteria employees and student climate staff working for the School District of Philadelphia. “We see the effects of the criminal justice system each and every day, in the lives of our members and their families,” she said. “And I have personally witnessed what has happened to my sons’ friends who have been arrested and had all hope taken from them of being allowed to do what they are capable of doing. That’s just not right.”

The Honorable Karen Yvette Simmons is in her third term as a Judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court. In her career as a judge, she has held thousands of hearings in criminal matters and firmly established her reputation as a “tough but fair” judge. “The law prescribes punishments for offenses,” she said, “but forever after those sentences have been fully served, criminal records continue to mark them as ‘criminals’. That makes it impossible for people to succeed who have learned from their mistakes and turned their lives around. As a society, we have to change that.”

Since its founding in 2012, PLSE has represented almost 3000 low-income Philadelphians in court as they seek to delete criminal records of arrests that did not lead to convictions. Today, PLSE prosecutes more expungement petitions than any other non-profit in the country. This fall, PLSE is beginning to represent clients in seeking pardons from the Governor for convictions – most of them resulting from plea bargains, and most resulting from bad choices made more than ten years ago.

“Because low-income communities in Philadelphia have disproportionately high arrest rates – as high as 60% – records of arrests and convictions not only lock individuals and their families in poverty, but whole neighborhoods,” explained Ryan Allen Hancock, chair of PLSE’s Board of Directors. “We are lucky indeed to have these two civic leaders join us as we try to chart a new course for our organization, and a new neighborhood economic development strategy for the City of Philadelphia.”

Get the full press release here.

Corporate Attorney Writes About Volunteering With PLSE

Corporate Attorney Writes About Volunteering With PLSE

September 25, 2018. Chanel Lattimer, an associate in Cozen O’Connor’s Intellectual Property department, wrote an article in Philadelphia Bar Reporter discussing her experience with pro bono work. She writes, “I first learned about criminal records and Philadelphia’s low-income, heavily minority neighborhoods have a criminal record history, but also that such records do not automatically disappear even if the charges are withdrawn by the district attorney or the court finds the individual not guilty.”

Read the full article here.

United Way Funds PLSE’s First Two Pardon Hubs

United Way Funds PLSE’s First Two Pardon Hubs

August 27, 2018. Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) announced today that it had received a $10,000 contract from United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey (UWGPSNJ) to develop the first “Pardon Hubs” as part of United Way’s Income and Financial Stability Community Impact Program.

In this new partnership, PLSE will select two of UWGPSNJ’s Philadelphia agencies that are located in low-income, high-arrest neighborhoods. Those agencies will be taught about the creation and dissemination of criminal records, the intergenerational damage they cause to individuals, families and communities, and how those records can be erased through expungements and pardons. The agencies will then become “Pardon Hubs,” helping neighbors through those processes.

PLSE will hold community information sessions and conduct two client intake sessions per year at each Hub through its Criminal Records Expungement Project. As PLSE is seeking expungements of non-conviction data in court, the Hubs will work with the clients in their neighborhoods to prepare themselves for possible application to the Governor for a pardon. Those who successfully complete the pardon preparation program will be considered for PLSE’s Pardon Project, in which clients will be linked with volunteer attorneys and others who have volunteered to help support the pardon applicant in what is today a daunting three-year process.

“We are very excited to be launching this new partnership with PLSE,” said Nikia Owens, director, UWGPSNJ’s Income and Financial Stability Community Impact program. . “It has been estimated that 60% of the people who live in Philadelphia’s lowest income neighborhoods have criminal records, and that more than 80% of employers and landlords check those records as part of background checks. Our society can invest every dollar we have in job training and workforce development, but we have no chance to succeed if these individuals are still prevented by the bad choices they made decades ago from getting the jobs or housing for which they are qualified today.”

PLSE files and prosecutes more expungement petitions than any other agency in the country – more than 2,200 last year alone. It has worked closely with Lieutenant Governor Michael Stack since 2015 on developing and implementing a statewide Pathways to Pardons program. Following a drug summit held in January in Washington, D.C., Steven Burk, Secretary to the Board of Pardons, referred to PLSE as “lawyers who share a passion for justice, expertise in expungement, and demonstrated success in helping those once addicted to drugs unburden themselves from their criminal records histories, so they can pursue their potential.”

“People who have demonstrably turned their lives around deserve a second chance,” continued Owens. “Our new partnership with PLSE holds that promise for literally hundreds of thousands of good people who are doing their best to achieve their potentials.”

Read the full press release here.

Brandeis Law Society Becomes the First Bar Association in Pennsylvania to Offer Pro Bono Help With Pardons

Brandeis Law Society Becomes the First Bar Association in Pennsylvania to Offer Pro Bono Help With Pardons

August 14, 2018. The Louis D. Brandeis Law Society today announced its new partnership with Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity in which it will recruit and support attorneys providing volunteer legal services to poor Philadelphians seeking pardons from the Governor. Brandeis is the first bar association to sign up to help with the new Pardon Project.

It has been estimated that over 200,000 low-income Philadelphians have been convicted of at least one crime. For a great many, the bad decisions occurred when they were young, often under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Today, those convictions are being used by employers, landlords, credit agencies, and others to deny opportunities to people who have turned their lives around and are otherwise clearly qualified for advancement. The stigma of being branded a “criminal” for all time does more than just keep individuals and their families in poverty: because arrests and convictions are disproportionately higher in low-income, minority communities, criminal history records are helping to keep entire neighborhoods in poverty.

The Louis J. Goffman Award-winning Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) files and prosecutes in court more criminal record expungement petitions than any other organization in the country. It is launching its new Pardon Project, to help clients who have clearly turned their lives around since the time they were convicted and have earned forgiveness from society. The Louis D. Brandeis Law Society has agreed to find lawyers to help PLSE clients through the daunting pardon application and the 3-year administrative process, collecting the necessary documents and telling their stories of transformation in the most accurate, persuasive ways.

“We are excited to be the inaugural law association partner in this important project,” said Jennifer Coatsworth, Chancellor of the Law Society and an attorney with Margolis Edelstein. “What’s key to success in the pardon process is thoroughness, attention to detail, accuracy, and storytelling. These are skills that all of our members share, regardless of practice area. We see pardons as a way that any of us can fulfill our Talmudic tradition of ‘repairing the world’ by helping individuals achieve better lives for themselves and their families.”

Brandeis and PLSE will be offering a 2-credit CLE program on September 17 at 4:30 pm that will be a practical guide for attorneys seeking to help non-incarcerated clients obtain pardons in Pennsylvania. It will free to any lawyer who is considering volunteering for the new Pardon Project. At the conclusion of the program, pro bono lawyers will be assigned an existing, pre-qualified PLSE client to help through the pardon process.

For more information about the Brandeis partnership with PLSE, contact Adam Laver, laver@blankrome.com. For information about the CLE program, contact Tobey Oxholm at oxholm@plsephilly.org.

Read the full press release here.

Internationally-acclaimed restaurateur Mike Solomonov joins PLSE Board

Michael Solomonov, Internationally-Acclaimed “Outstanding Chef” and Innovative Restaurateur, Joins PLSE Board of Directors

June 25, 2018 – Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) announced today that Philadelphia chef and restaurateur Michael Solomonov has accepted an appointment to PLSE’s Board of Directors. Solomonov is known for his landmark Philadelphia restaurant Zahav, for Dizengoff, Abe Fisher, Goldie, and Federal Donuts, and for winning multiple awards from the James Beard Foundation including “Outstanding Chef” in 2017, “Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic” in 2011, and “Best International Cookbook” and “Book of the Year” in 2016 for his and business partner/co-author Steven Cook’s first cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.

“PLSE is all about helping people get second chances after having made some bad decisions in life. Mike Solomonov understands and appreciates our mission. He is the perfect advocate for renewal and forgiveness,” said Stuart Davidson, a member of PLSE’s Board who has known him for years. “Mike is a creative thinker and energetic force who is determined to change how society thinks about and responds to people with criminal record histories. PLSE is lucky to have him. Philadelphia is lucky to have him.”

In the non-profit arena, Solomonov and Cook along with their partners at Federal Donuts, are perhaps best known for creating Rooster Soup Co. in 2017, a restaurant at 1526 Sansom Street which donates 100% of its profits to support vulnerable Philadelphians through Broad Street Ministry’s Hospitality Collaborative.

“While I’ve had some success, I have also had some very dark days when I was struggling with addiction,” said Solomonov. “It was thanks to many others that I got clean and created a whole new story for my life. As a society, we have to be ready to forgive people who went through a bad stretch and made some bad choices, and since then have turned their lives around. Some are now the people quietly and pridefully giving back to their communities. I am proud to have been asked to help PLSE because I believe in its mission and care deeply for the people of this city.”

The overlap between alcohol, drugs and crime in Philadelphia is very high. As Mayor Kenney’s Opioid Task Force reported last year, 74% of inmates tested positive for use of one or more drugs on admission to jail in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. It has been estimated that over 60% of those living in poor or minority neighborhoods in Philadelphia have been arrested. Readily available over the internet, criminal record histories are frequently misunderstood and used, often illegally, to deny credit, academic opportunities, jobs, careers, housing, and even admission into nursing homes. Criminal record histories also stop parents from going on class trips, coaching youth teams, and volunteering for community activities. PLSE files more criminal record expungement petitions than any other organization in the country and later this year will begin representing clients seeking pardons from the governor.

Read the full press release here.

Cozen O’Connor Joins PLSE Pro Bono Paralegal Program with Volunteer Attorneys

Cozen O’Connor Joins PLSE Pro Bono Paralegal Program, Adds Key New Dimension: Volunteer Attorneys

Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) announced today that Cozen O’Connor had become the third law firm sponsor of PLSE’s new Pro Bono Paralegal Program, and has added a key new dimension: attorneys in the sponsoring law firm supervising the paralegals.

Developed in partnership with the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals, the PLSE Paralegal Program uses professional paralegals to help expunge criminal history records of hundreds of low-income Philadelphians each year. The idea was launched late last year with Ballard Spahr as the first location. Pepper Hamilton took the program to a new level when it organized its paralegals in a service team under a Pro Bono Paralegal. Now, Cozen O’Connor has added a new dimension to the program, by having some of its attorneys review the work of their paralegals.

Chanel Lattimer, as associate attorney in the firm’s Intellectual Property Department, had experience with expungement petitions as a result of earlier volunteer service with the Young Lawyers Division of the Philadelphia Bar Association and Community Legal Services. “We are making sure that the petitions filed in court by PLSE accurately include all the necessary information taken from the underlying dockets in the cases where the criminal charges were dismissed,” she explains. “We want to ensure that when the petitions get to the Judge for a hearing, there’s really almost nothing to argue about.” Chanel encourages others to get involved as it is “very straightforward work that any paralegal or lawyer can do, and it can have a major impact on the lives of the clients.”

Few people understand that if you ever got arrested, even if all charges were dropped or the judge found you innocent, your arrest record is permanent. Worse, it’s all there online for anyone to see just by typing in your name. It is estimated that over 80% of landlords and employers check criminal record histories routinely as part of doing background checks. Just being arrested and charged with a crime stops people even from becoming a hairdresser, hair-braider, maintenance or food-service worker in a public school, or health care aide, because there is a “good moral character” requirement for admission to state-licensed trades.

PLSE paralegals check the accuracy of work done by law students at Penn and Drexel Universities who obtain information from the clients at intakes around the city and then generate draft court petitions. The paralegals compare the petitions against the official data sources (criminal dockets) and correct approximately 1 in 5 of the drafts. A lawyer’s review is necessary before the petition can get filed in court, and PLSE’s attorneys do that for more than 2000 petitions each year. Now, attorneys in law firms like Cozen O’Connor will start helping, allowing even more to be filed.

“This is a major development for us,” said PLSE’s interim executive director Tobey Oxholm. “No matter what subject area a paralegal works in, they have been trained to have sharp eyes. Since everything is on-line and a petition takes only a few minutes to review for accuracy, they can do it at almost any time, wherever they might be, home or office, evening or weekend or during the day.”

The next paralegal training program will be on June 13 at Blank Rome, from 12:00 -1:30 pm with lunch included. For more information about PLSE and its Paralegal Program, contact info@plsephilly.org.

Read the full press release here.

Jeff Brown Joins PLSE Board of Directors

Jeff Brown, Innovator Who Brought Supermarkets to Low-Income Inner-City “Food Deserts,” Joins PLSE Board of Directors

Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) announced today that Jeffrey Brown, Founder, President & CEO of Brown’s Super Stores, Inc., has joined the PLSE Board of Directors.

“On behalf of PLSE, I want to say how honored we are to have Jeff Brown join our leadership team,” said Stuart Davidson, a member of the PLSE Board and a partner in the law firm of Willig, Williams & Davidson. “Jeff is a very successful businessman whose positions are driven by social justice. He is the definition of what business leadership must become if our society is to reach its true potential.”

A fourth generation Philadelphia grocer, Brown owns and operates 11 ShopRite and 2 Fresh Grocer Supermarkets in the Philadelphia area. He has attracted national attention by hiring former prisoners and bringing healthy food to underserved neighborhoods. partnering with the Salvation Army, social service groups, and the City of Philadelphia’s reentry programs. He estimates that his company employs 500 returning citizens, often providing them with their first jobs. He began to hire people fresh out of prison in 2008, after being released from prison. His company employs more than 2,600 ShopRite associates who are committed to making a difference for their customers and the local communities they serve.

“With a criminal background,” Brown said, “people can’t get work, and they have these burdens that never go away for the rest of their lives. They often can’t get a mortgage or live in public housing. I know the damage that criminal records cause not just to families and communities, but to their opportunity to be a productive member of society; an overwhelming number of citizens become unable to support themselves. PLSE is at the forefront of assisting citizens in regaining their independence and pride. I am proud to join its Board and support its critical work.

Last year, PLSE filed and prosecuted almost 2,500 criminal record expungement petitions on behalf of low-income Philadelphians – more than any other organization in the country. It is working closely with the Lieutenant Governor, the Secretary of the Board of Pardons, Community Legal Services, and others to make pardons from the Governor a realistic possibility for people who have demonstrably turned their lives around and are now making significant contributions to their communities.

In Philadelphia, 36,000 people pass through city jails each year, and another 4,032 return to Philadelphia each year from Pennsylvania’s state prisons. “Experts agree that employment is key to keeping people from returning to prison,” said Tobey Oxholm, PLSE’s Interim Executive Director. “Criminal records keep people from the good jobs they are clearly qualified for. It makes sense for society to support the employment of returning citizens, so they can remain crime-free and contribute to our economy and society. Jeff Brown has been walking this walk for over a decade. We are very lucky to have him on our Board.”

Among his many other service activities, Mr. Brown is chairman of the Pennsylvania Workforce Development Board, and the Philadelphia Youth Network. He is the founder of Uplift Solutions, a non- profit working to create sustainable access to healthy and affordable food, nutrition education, health care and workforce development for returning citizens, nationally. He was name 2014 Ernst and Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year for his innovative work of meeting the needs of impoverished communities through holistic supermarket hubs; and he was chosen to be a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama at President Obama’s first State of the Union address in 2010, in recognition of his leadership in solved the “food desert” crisis.

Read the full press release here.

PLSE and Drexel partner to develop a mobile-friendly pardon application

PLSE partners with Drexel University in development of mobile app that has “major importance for the economies of cities”

Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) announced today that it has been awarded a $10,000 grant from the Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation to develop a mobile-friendly web application for use in applying for pardons in Pennsylvania (Pardon Me™), and that Drexel University’s Department of Criminology and Justice Studies and the Drexel ExCITe Center will partner in the “Pardons App” project.

“PLSE started working with Lieutenant Governor Stack and the Board of Pardons in 2016 to help make Pennsylvania’s ‘Pathways to Pardons’ program more accessible to those with criminal records,” said PLSE’s executive director Tobey Oxholm. “Our vision has been to make the process less overwhelming to those who have earned forgiveness for their past crimes, and this grant puts that hope within reach.”

Current data suggest that at least one in five Philadelphians, or 340,000 people, have been convicted of crimes more significant than summary offenses, and those convictions can be erased from the public record only by a pardon from the governor. Often occurring decades earlier, while the offender was significantly younger and at a very different point in his or her life, the criminal record lasts forever, making it very difficult if not impossible to get accepted into trade schools or assisted care facilities, obtain credit, or get jobs or promotions to which they would otherwise be well qualified. It was recently estimated that over 80% of landlords use the publicly-available criminal record histories when doing background checks. Because poorer neighborhoods, largely minority, suffer disproportionately as a result of the high rates of arrest their residents experience, convictions have severe and long-lasting economic consequences not only for families, but for whole neighborhoods.

“This is a truly exciting development for the people of our Commonwealth,” said Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack who, as chairman of the state Board of Pardons, he made it clear that people deserve a second chance in life. “Any offense in Pennsylvania is pardonable for people who have truly turned their lives around and become productive citizens. PLSE, Drexel, and the Trustees of the Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation are to be commended for their vision, creativity and very practical approach to the issue of criminal record histories, which has major importance for the economic well-being of our cities.”

The Application for Clemency is daunting for the average Philadelphian, who has a fifth-grade education: fewer than 20% of the applications that are requested from the Board of Pardons are actually completed, and at least one-third of them get rejected for errors. PLSE’s goal is to develop a mobile-friendly web application, or “Pardons App,” that can be utilized by a wide variety of potential users on their mobile devices, independent of a specific platform, that will not just help but encourage the user to keep going, using the “level up” reward systems used in video games. Drexel University’s ExCITe Center – geared to creating “Expressive and Creative Interactive Technologies” – is perfectly positioned to lead this development, especially since Drexel already offers electronic portfolios for all of its students.

Read the full press release here.

PLSE files first 990, achieves Gold Seal from GuideStar

PLSE files first 990, achieves Gold Seal from Guidestar

Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) announced today that it has earned the “Gold Seal” from GuideStar – the world’s largest source of information on nonprofit organizations. The GuideStar website includes a database of 1.8 million nonprofits, of which only 0.5% achieve the Gold Level. GuideStar allow users to benchmark organizations, verify charitable status, access compensation information, and interpret nonprofit financial data.

Qualifying for the Gold Seal required PLSE to post its IRS form 990 (for Fiscal Year 2017) on the GuideStar website and provide detailed information about PLSE’s programs, financials and governance. PLSE’s 990 can be found here.

“The Gold Seal marks our coming of age as a public interest law firm,” said PLSE Board Chair and co-founder Ryan Allen Hancock. “2017 was a banner year for us, as we obtained over 2,200 Orders of Expungement for our clients, received the Louis J. Goffman Award from the Pennsylvania Bar Foundation for our outstanding volunteer legal service to the poor, and were recognized by the Barra Foundation as an “exemplary nonprofit” because of our demonstrated leadership, adaptability and performance. This year, thanks to the financial support of new donors, we will be expanding our services into the area of pardons, which hold the promise of clean slates and new futures for our clients who have so demonstrably turned their lives around.”

The GuideStar report on PLSE can be obtained here.

PLSE’s 990 can be found here. Read the full press release here.

Renown Philadelphia Artist Russell Craig joins Board of the Criminal Record Expungement Project

Renown Philadelphia artist Russell Craig joins Board of Directors of the Criminal Records Expungement Project (C-REP)

Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) announced today that nationally known painter and Philadelphia native Russell Craig has joined its Board of Directors.

In making the announcement, PLSE’s Board Chair Ryan Hancock said, “From its earliest days, PLSE has always understood that art can play a role in starting conversations, changing perspectives and inspiring action around the complicated human and social issues those artists portray. Russell’s leadership will take PLSE’s art & advocacy work to a new level, as we expand our efforts to organize communities around the the harms that criminal record histories cause long after the sentence is served, not just to the individuals, but to their families and communities for generations.”

The power of Craig’s art has been recognized by the Barnes Foundation under whose auspices Craig is now teaching art to formerly incarcerated men and women as part of new collaboration between the Barnes and Mural Arts Philadelphia’s “Restorative Justice” program. His artistic style and stirring imagery were developed during his seven-year incarceration. With little art materials available to him, he utilized his court papers to make his canvas. The large scale of his art is deliberate, forcing the viewer be confronted by Craig’s portraits upon entering the gallery. Through confrontation and contemplation, Craig’s pieces offer an opportunity to talk about the justice system in the United States, help unify all who have struggled through trauma, and advocate for positive change within ourselves and our communities. His work is currently being exhibited as “Blood, Sweat & Tears” at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, 1020 South Street, through April 29, and will be included in “State Goods: Art in the Era of Mass Incarceration,” a show beginning May 19 at the Andrew Freedman House in New York City.

“Having been personally helped by PLSE, I am really happy to be asked to help PLSE help others,” said Craig. “I am not defined by my criminal record. People change. PLSE is all about making society see people for what they are today, and giving everyone the chance to live to their potential. Everybody ought to be in favor of that.”

Craig is an alumnus of the Mural Arts Guild program who taught himself to read, write, and draw while incarcerated. He was one of the inaugural fellows for “Right of Return,” a program of the Open Philanthropy Foundation awarding formerly incarcerated artists $20,000 for a project addressing mass incarceration. He has also worked on “Voices,” a mural arts project within the Restorative Justice Program of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections that humanizes and empowers the voices of those who are or were recently jailed on criminal justice issues through creative expression.

The full press release can be found here.