"My mission is to help people overcome the barriers to employment created by their criminal records."

This is a guest blog post from Employment Opportunity Legal Corps (EOLC) Fellow Zane Johnson ('16), of Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This may sound cliché, but I became an attorney because I wanted to help people. More specifically, I wanted to help communities that are traditionally underserved and overlooked. It was this urge to serve that ultimately led me to my Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellowship at Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE). PLSE is a nonprofit legal aid organization working towards just outcomes for low-income individuals who have had contact with Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. As an Employment Opportunity Legal Corps (EOLC) Fellow at PLSE, my mission is to help people overcome the barriers to employment created by their criminal records.

Employers often use criminal history records as a proxy for predicting future job performance. Unfortunately, instead of using this information as a single factor when considering a job candidate, employers often choose to disqualify all candidates with a criminal history regardless of its relevance to the position for which they are applying. The result is that people are unfairly excluded from job opportunities they are otherwise qualified for. Many times these charges are ones they were never convicted of, or years-old mistakes that they are trying to put behind them.

Our main strategy for helping clients overcome this bias is record clearing. For clients with eligible charges we file an expungement petition, which, if granted, orders the destruction of the record so that prospective employers may no longer use past charges against them. In just my first three months as a Fellow at PLSE, I helped remove nearly 300 potential barriers to employment through expungements alone. When expungement is not an option, we provide clients with information on additional avenues for record clearing in Pennsylvania, such as the pardon process.

 

While assisting clients with record clearing may be a large part of what I do, I believe my work as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellow serves a much larger purpose. As an EOLC Fellow, my goal is to help people take back their personal history. I aim to help our clients show both employers and society at large that who they are cannot be contained within the four corners of a criminal court docket. To this end, I am also examining ways to help both current and former clients spread the word about their experiences to force us all to recognize their human dignity.

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