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.

PLSE hosts volunteer paralegal and attorney training

PLSE hosts volunteer paralegal and attorney training

Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) with the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals (PAP) co-hosted a training program in criminal record expungement at Pepper Hamilton LLP on January 18, 2018. The training provided an overview of the creation, dissemination, and destruction of criminal records in Pennsylvania. More than 30 paralegals and 4 attorneys have now been trained in Philadelphia County expungement and sealing practices, and they will be assisting in filing more than 50 petitions before the end of January. This is the second training that PLSE has hosted on criminal record expungement for legal professionals, but the first time that PLSE offered CLE credit approved by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

If you are interested in attending a future training or becoming part of the volunteer paralegal and attorney program, please contact us at info@plsephilly.org.

PLSE at DC Drug Policy Summit

PLSE shares expertise on expungements and the effects of criminal records histories with National Drug Control Policy leadership

Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) began 2018 with its Managing Attorney, Zane Johnson, going to Washington, D.C., with Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack and Board of Pardons Secretary Steven R. Burk, to discuss Pennsylvania’s “Pathways to Pardons” program. The summit was called by Richard Baum, Director of National Drug Control Policy, and was also attended by representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and Board of Probation and Parole, and several high-ranking members of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Lieutenant Governor Stack is the architect of “Pathways to Pardons” –the only such programs in the country. As he wrote when launching the program in 2015, “individuals with a history of substance abuse often have a past that is checkered by crimes they committed while suffering from addiction. Once fully committed to recovery, their criminal history, while not representative of the people they are today, continues to thwart their ability to lead fully productive lives by limiting their career opportunities, their ability to get jobs, and even their ability to get housing or financial credit.” For these citizens, expungements and pardons represent a pathway to a better life, for them and for their families.

“PLSE has worked closely with the Lieutenant Governor since the creation of Pathways to Pardons and has been a key partner as we have presented the program to the community,” said Secretary Burk. “Our meeting with federal officials in Washington demonstrated the importance of having at the policy table lawyers who share a passion for justice, expertise in expungement, and demonstrated success in persuading judges to release those once addicted to drugs from the heavy chains of their criminal records histories, so they can pursue their potentials.”

The group discussed the Pathways to Pardons program as a potential nationwide model to help Americans receive a second chance after accumulating a criminal record while battling addiction. A pardon is a forgiveness of crime and the restoration of rights and privileges lost as a result of the conviction, making it possible for a crime to be expunged completely from a person ‘s criminal record. In Pennsylvania, only the Governor can grant a pardon, and only upon the recommendation of the Board of Pardons.

“We look forward to working with PLSE in the coming year,” Secretary Burk continued, “with the objective of significantly reducing the time it takes to grant a pardon to those who have truly turned their lives around.”

About Pathways to Pardons

Pathways to Pardons brings together representatives from the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, Department of Corrections, Board of Probation and Parole, and service providers to provide information on the pardon process. The program encourages individuals with past convictions to apply for a pardon to help them achieve a second chance at life.

The full press release can be found here.

PLSE announces new leadership

Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity announces new leadership

Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) announced today that Zane Johnson has been named Managing Attorney and that Carl (Tobey) Oxholm has been named interim Executive Director. These changes follow the appointment of PLSE’s founding Executive Director, Mike Lee, to the position of Legislative Director by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.

“This change in leadership could not have come at a better time for PLSE,” said Ryan Hancock, Chair of the organization’s Board of Directors. “While we are sad for PLSE that Mike Lee is leaving, we are truly excited by knowing there will be meaningful criminal justice reform under the leadership of the city’s new District Attorney. PLSE will do all that it can to support those efforts, and we are indeed fortunate to have such talented individuals already with PLSE to carry forward Mike’s many accomplishments without missing a beat.”

A graduate of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, Zane began his service with PLSE as one of thirty-three Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows nationwide. Working primarily on the Criminal Records Expungement Project, Zane has taught and supervised scores of volunteers as they performed intakes and prepared petitions for hundreds of PLSE clients. Last year alone, he personally represented more than 350 clients, filing over 1625 expungement petitions on their behalf, with a success rate of over 98%. He also helped launch a new partnership with the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals whose members will provide pro bono assistance, potentially allowing PLSE to double the reach of its expungement services. In addition to his work with PLSE, Zane works as a facilitator for Good Shepherd Mediation’s Juvenile Offender Diversion Program and sits on the board of the nonprofit organization, Art for Justice. As managing attorney, he will be responsible for supervising PLSE’s Criminal Record Expungement Project and Fair Employment Opportunities Project, and managing relationships with community partners.

Tobey Oxholm has been a fixture of Philadelphia’s public interest community for decades, having served as Chief Deputy City Solicitor and a Trustee of Community Legal Services for twenty years, and having co-founded three volunteer legal service organizations: Philadelphia VIP, the Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project, and the Homeless Advocacy Project. He has received many awards for exemplary public service to underserved communities, including the American Bar Association’ Pro Bono Publico Award, the Pennsylvania Bar Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Bar Medal. He began his service with PLSE as a volunteer staff attorney in September 2016. As the interim Executive Director, he will serve as the chief admini- strative officer, lead the organization’s development efforts, and help launch the new Pardons Project.

The full press release can be found here.

PLSE wins Pa Bar Foundation’s prestigious Goffman Award!

PLSE wins Pa Bar Foundation’s prestigious Goffman Award!

The Philadelphia Lawyers For Social Equity will be recognized by the Pennsylvania Bar Foundation for our commitment to training, supervising, and supporting Pro Bono service in Pennsylvania. The presentation from the Pennsylvania Bar Foundation to take place Wednesday, May 10, in Pittsburgh at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

Click here for more information about the Goffman award and the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s annual meeting.