PLSE, Board of Pardons Partner in Creating a Pardon Video Library

PLSE and Board of Pardons Partner in Creating a Video Library to Help Applicants for Pardons

         

Pictured (L-R): Eric Patterson, successful applicant for a pardon; Renee Chenault-Fattah, former television news anchor and PLSE Board Member; Board of Pardons Secretary Brandon Flood; and M. Zane Johnson, Managing Attorney of PLSE

April 22, 2019. Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) announced today that, with the assistance of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, it had completed a full day of videotaping people who shared their experiences in applying for a pardon. The applicants, who are being called “Pardon Coaches,” included Brandon Flood, recently appointed Secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, who himself was a successful applicant for a pardon.

“Creating a video library to help people who are considering applying for a pardon is a terrific idea,” said Secretary Flood, “and I was absolutely delighted to be asked to serve as a Coach. My hope is that more people will see from these videos that a pardon is a real option for them, and they will continue to be productive citizens.” Flood had been convicted of two felonies by the age of 22, served nine years in state prison, and received his pardon when he was 36.

“All of the people who came out today to share their stories and their wisdom were simply terrific,” said Renee Chenault Fattah, well-known Philadelphia television news anchor who conducted all of the interviews. “A few of the Coaches shared what they did wrong and why they thought their applications had been rejected, while others explained what they thought they did well. But the bottom line for everyone was, ‘You can do this!’ For me, it was an inspirational day.” Chenault-Fattah is a member of the PLSE Board of Directors.

Funding for the PLSE Video Project was provided by the Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation. Students in Drexel University’s Film and Television Program recorded and will be producing the videos, a dozen of which are expected to be completed and posted on PLSE’s website by July.

Read the full press release here.

Announcing Study on the Impact of Pardons in Low-Income/High-Arrest Communities

Lenfest Foundation Announces Study on the Economic Impact of Pardons on Low-Income/High-Arrest Communities

April 8, 2019. The Lenfest Foundation announced today that it will fund a study by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia of the economic impact that pardons could have on low-income, high-arrest communities, as a part of workforce development initiatives.

“We have heard, from workforce development agencies across the state, as if with one voice, that criminal records are undeniably a major factor in keeping people and families in poverty,” said Dr. Keith Leaphart, Board Chair of the Lenfest Foundation, in announcing the award. “At a time when every state has to deal with the after-effects of mass incarceration, we need to understand the economic implications that criminal records have not just on families, but on the economy of the communities in which the returning citizens live. We thank Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity for bringing this key public policy issue to our attention.”

Earl Buford, Chief Executive Officer of Partner4Work, the workforce development agency for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, wrote in support of PLSE’s proposal: “We know from working with individuals that their records are preventing them from getting jobs that are available and for which they are qualified. For some, these are professional jobs in accounting and health care; but even at the trades level, a criminal record stops them from enrolling in training programs or taking the examination that leads to a state license. We see these individuals facing career barriers each day, losing income and hope.”

“In so many cases, our efforts to place individuals into jobs that pay a living or family sustaining wage, for which many of them are qualified, are thwarted by the existence of a criminal or even an arrest record,” added H. Patrick Clancy, President and CEO of Philadelphia Works, Inc., which serves as Philadelphia’s Workforce Development Board. “In our City, living wages equate to the first step out of poverty.”

“There is simply no doubt that fiscal responsibility is an urgent justice issue,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. “With respect to pardons, erasing the mark of incarceration may have a tangible economic impact. This type of research might inform potential solutions from government at the state and local level, including making re-entry easier for justice-involved individuals and communities. We look forward to working with the Economy League in this study.”

The study is expected to be concluded by September.

Read the full press release here.

PLSE Receives Leadership Grant From The Philadelphia Foundation

Philadelphia Foundation Awards First-Ever Grant to PLSE

January 9, 2019. The Philadelphia Foundation announced today that it has provided a $10,000 Leadership Development Grant to Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE). The grant was announced by Pedro A. Ramos, the foundation’s President and CEO.

This is the first grant the foundation has awarded to PLSE. It was supported by the William J. McCahan 3rd Fund in Memory of Thomas C. McCahan and Florence M. McCahan. The grant is intended to strengthen organizational capacity and nonprofit leaders in the areas of governance, planning, civic engagement, and board and staff development.

“The timing of the grant could not be better for us,” said Tobey Oxholm, PLSE’s Interim Executive Director.

Within the span of the past year, PLSE has appointed a new executive director, hired two new staff, started a student internship program, and greatly expanded and diversified its Board. It also more than doubled its annual budget, raised more than $100,000 in donations for the first time since its founding in 2010 and attracted first-time support from several well-known foundations in addition to the Philadelphia Foundation.

Over the same one year period, PLSE also instituted a variety of best practices, including independent reviews of its financials and Form 990, and achieved a Gold Seal rating from GuideStar. Perhaps most significantly, it launched its new Pardon Project this past October, which is expected to start connecting PLSE with workforce development, public health, social service and religious institutions in low-income/high-arrest neighborhoods throughout the city that give communications and volunteer management very high priority.

“I want to thank the Philadelphia Foundation for its confidence in PLSE as we push forward on so many fronts to help our neighbors overcome the stigma that comes from past interactions with the criminal justice system,” said M. Zane Johnson, PLSE’s Managing Attorney. “If we are to reach our potential as a society, we need to give everyone the chance to reach his or her individual economic and personal potentials. At a minimum, we need to stop branding people forever as a ‘criminal’ based on decisions they made on their worst day, and allow them to find better jobs, housing and credit, and create better lives for themselves and their families. This Philadelphia Foundation grant will really help us develop and leverage our assets to maximum advantage.”

Read the full press release here.

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.