PLSE Founder Ryan Hancock Receives Bar Association’s Highest Award for Volunteer Service

Ryan Hancock, PLSE Co-Founder and “Exemplary Volunter,” Wins Philadelphia Bar Association’s Highest Honor for Volunteer Attorneys

December 5, 2018. Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) announced today that Ryan Allen Hancock, Of Counsel to the firm of Willig, Williams & Davidson, has received the Philadelphia Bar Association’s PNC Achievement Award. The Award “honors significant accomplishments in improving the administration of justice.”

The Bar Association’s announcement noted that “Hancock has dedicated his career to helping low-income Philadelphians overcome past criminal convictions through pro bono litigation and the cofounding of Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, where he has served as board chair since its beginning. PLSE has become widely recognized for helping Philadelphians expunge criminal records that can hinder them from attaining employment, housing and other benefits for which they are otherwise qualified. In 2009, the first criminal record expungement clinic took place and was attended by over 300 people. In 2018, PLSE is launching the Pardon Project, a system that will allow for the filing of thousands of pardon applications for individuals who have turned their lives around and are being held back by past criminal convictions.”

Hancock received several nominations for the Achievement Award. One was from Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, Director of Litigation of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. She wrote about “[t]he comprehensive scope of Ryan’s dedication to promoting employment opportunities in communities burdened by over-policing, over-incarceration, and the resultant oppression of criminal records.” Michael Hardiman, currently a Commissioner with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission who worked with Hancock for eight years at the Commission, noted Hancock’s ever-present “willingness to help others” and “strong commitment and persistence” to “vigorously enforcing existing statutory rights … [and] in advocating for changes to our processes … in order to more effectively and efficiently protect individual rights.”

Joining them in nominating Hancock for the Award was Mike Lee, who co-founded PLSE and was its first Executive Director. Describing PLSE’s growth from a simple idea to a successful statewide model, Lee wrote, “Without fail, as our workload expanded so did Ryan’s pro bono time. No task is above Ryan. From copying orders to calling clients, Ryan made time to nurture the non-profit and mentor me … His compassion for people is only matched by his legal talents as an attorney.” Tobey Oxholm, PLSE’s current interim executive director and a former winner of the Award, wrote: “Simply put, Ryan Hancock is a truly exemplary volunteer, amazing for his vision, energy and commitment and the countless hundreds of hours he has served pro bono with and through this organization that he founded … [yet] virtually no one knows of him or his service.”

“I was speechless when I was told, and am humbled by the recognition,” said Hancock. “We who are so privileged to be lawyers are really the ones who benefit from pro bono service. Every time I volunteer, without fail, I am amazed by what our clients manage to push through and get over each and every day, and I leave inspired and energized by their examples. I accept this Award in their names, and with renewed commitment to give my best to help create a truly equitable society.”

Read the full press release here.

PLSE Announces Inaugural Mike Lee Fellow

PLSE Announces Inaugural Mike Lee Fellow

November 14, 2018. Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) announced today that is has appointed JarueLawson as its inaugural Mike Lee Fellow.

The Mike Lee Fellowship in Criminal Justice is presented twice each year by PLSE to individuals who have (or have had) a criminal record, are interested in a career in criminal justice or community organizing, and have a commitment to social equity. For six months, Lee Fellows work alongside PLSE staff to engage with communities disproportionately affected by criminal records, and help PLSE better understand the challenges they are facing. Fellows will also propose a project to address an issue related to criminal records, which PLSE will support them in developing.

“We are very lucky to have Jarue as our first Mike Lee Fellow,” said PLSE Managing Attorney Zane Johnson. “His knowledge and experience give him deep insights into how we can best empower those facing the stigma that accompanies a criminal record. He will be a great resource for us and for the community.”

Mr. Lawson has a passion to help others and a personal understanding of the challenges people face when they have a criminal record. He is a Philadelphia native and 1995 graduate of Bartram Motivation High School, where he was an honors student. He then went on to study nursing administration and business management at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Community College of Philadelphia respectively. During his 20 consecutive years of incarceration, he became passionate about social justice reform, activism, mentorship, and the role of identity in shaping one’s perspective and behavior. He currently works as a home healthcare aide, and in the past has worked as a certified tutor and in electrical maintenance, while receiving additional certifications in forklift operation and electronic technology.

“It’s important for people to understand that my story, like anyone else’s, is unique,” he said “Through reading, conversation with others, and self-reflection I realized that while people may share similar experiences, no two stories are the same. Understanding this fact helps me approach people without making assumptions, and with a genuine interest in who they are as a person. Taking the time to understand someone’s story, and the unique challenges they face, is the first step towards empowering individuals to reach their full potential.”

As a Mike Lee Fellow, Mr. Lawson will be a conduit for information between PLSE and the community. The Fellowship will also provide him with an opportunity to grow as a leader and share his perspective on the challenges people face when they’ve had contact with the criminal justice system. “In my experience, people who are not well informed get taken advantage of,” Jarue said. “We see that frequently in our justice system. This Fellowship gives me the opportunity to connect people with the information and resources they need, while also changing the way people think about what it means to have a record.”

Read the full press release here.

Fels Fund Awards Social Justice Grant to PLSE

Fels Fund Awards Social Justice Grant to PLSE

October 22, 2018. Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) announced today that the Samuel S. Fels Fund has awarded PLSE a Social, Racial and Economic Justice Grant in the amount of $20,000. The grant is intended to support PLSE as it expands beyond criminal record expungements into a new area of critical importance to low-income Philadelphians – pardons – and develops related outreach, education and organizing programs in partnership with established community organizations.

“We see how mass incarceration of people of color harms so many families and neighborhoods, but we had not focused on how criminal record histories continue to devastate our communities of color long after people have served time. Now that we’ve talked with PLSE, we understand the importance of expungements and pardons,” said Sarah Martinez-Helfman, President of the Fund. “The Fels Fund is thrilled to be able to support this critical work.”

An estimated 60% of those living in minority and low-income neighborhoods have been arrested at least once and therefore have criminal record histories that are publicly available, for free, over the internet. In Pennsylvania, a court order is required before anything can be expunged (erased) from an arrest record, even if the charges were dropped or the person found not guilty. Only a pardon from the governor can erase a conviction, even if it was for a misdemeanor that happened many decades ago. PLSE has helped over 3,000 low-income Philadelphians obtain expungements, with a success rate of over 98%. This month, with the support of the Fels Fund and others, PLSE is beginning to train volunteers to help low-income Philadelphians obtain pardons for crimes they committed over a decade ago.

Data show that over 80% of all employers consider criminal records as part of background checks when considering applications for employment or promotions. That percentage is even higher for credit agencies, landlords and schools. Parents with criminal records are frequently disqualified from volunteering in their communities, coaching their children’s sports teams, or even going on school trips.

“It’s crushing that what someone was charged with 10 or 15 years ago, very often when they were young adults, can completely wipe out everything that person has done since then to improve themselves, even if they have accepted responsibility,” said Martinez-Helfman. “We need to address unjust systems as we work to repair individual lives.”

“For those of us who are involved in social justice work in Philadelphia, support by the Fels Fund is the mark of excellence,” said Ryan Hancock, one of PLSE’s co-founders and chair of its Board of Directors. “For more than 80 years, Fels has focused on improving the daily lives and futures of average Philadelphians. We are very proud to have the Fels Fund recognize us for making a big difference.”

Read the full press release here.

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.

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.