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Local lawyers lend Legal Aid a helping hand

by Chanel Davis

| @chanelrdavis

The Greensboro Bar Association has stepped up and offered to help the Greensboro branch of The Legal Aid of North Carolina give residents another shot at life with the stigma of a criminal record through the Legal Aid’s Second Chance project. The association committed to taking on 50 cases from Legal Aid to assist them in their endeavor.

“The Greensboro Bar Association wanted to do a signature pro bono project. Something that we could get several of our members involved in regardless of their practice area,” said Afi Johnson-Parris, president of the Greensboro Bar Association and attorney at Ward Black Law Firm in Greensboro. “We choose the expunctions because it was one of those things that has bipartisan support, is very formulaic and doesn’t take a lot of time to do so all of our members who have a bar license would be able to participate and it’s one of those type of projects that will make a big impact.”

The Second Chance project addresses the civil consequences of having crossed paths with the criminal justice system by helping individuals overcome barriers to employment or housing due to past arrest and conviction records. This includes helping to get criminal records expunged pro bono so it will be easier for residents to get housing, occupational and driver’s licenses, and obtain employment. Those looking for assistance would need to participate in the Legal Aid intake process before being referred to a volunteering lawyer. Legal aid is also reaching out to nonprofit and community organizations for referrals and letting them know the opportunity is available to their clients.

With Legal Aid agencies losing staff attorneys across the state, Johnson-Parris felt this was a good way for the Greensboro Bar Association to step up and help their community.

“This really just gives the Greensboro Bar members an opportunity to supplement what legal aid is doing and sort of help expand this project to benefit our area,” she said.

According to Legal Aid’s website, approximately one in five North Carolinians have a criminal record, including dismissed charges which remain on an individual’s record unless eligible for expungement.

“The North Carolina statutes allow for expunctions or certificates of relief in different scenarios based on the age of the crime, the type of crime and sometimes the age of the offender,” said Johnson-Parris. “Some of them are felonies. Generally criminal records expunction includes both misdemeanors and felonies.”

A training seminar was held on October 30 at the Smith Moore Leatherwood building in Greensboro, where local attorneys learned the ins and outs of how to do expunctions while introducing the attorneys to how the Legal Aid system works and the clients they help. Johnson-Parris said the response to the training was so overwhelming, with 47 registered lawyers, and that a second training will be held in the spring.

Attendees also received continuing legal education credit for the three-hour training. It covered collateral consequences for those with records, state statues, tools of relief like expunctions and certificates, forms and hands-on experience through case studies.

“Some people were a little intimidated, especially those of us who don’t practice criminal law, but I think the Legal Aid attorneys calmed everybody’s fears and made them feel like they could do this,” she said.

Attorney Patrick Kane, a partner at Smith Moore Leatherwood, said that he felt the program was well done and a cause that he could get behind. He said the opportunity allows him as a commercial litigator to put a face to those he’s helping.

“The statistics that were given on how those with criminal charges that didn’t result in convictions have had their lives impacted was really shocking,” he said. “These individuals need, and in most cases deserve, a second chance. We have the opportunity as lawyers to help provide that for them.”

Johnson-Parris said that one of the interesting things she learned in the training is how the box that indicates whether or not a person has been convicted or arrested for a crime impacts the individual and their families, particularly for those of color. This box is traditionally found on employment, housing and benefit applications, along with professional certifications.

“The economic and social impact is huge because these people are denied opportunities in the workforce by just having that stigma attached to them. If a wage earner in a family can’t get a job that impacts everybody in the family,” she said. “This is far beyond the person who has the record themselves. Plus, when you look at their inability to participate in our economy, that impacts our tax base. It’s so much broader than one person.”

Another area that raised eyebrows, especially for divorce attorney Johnson-Parris, is that domestic violence victims often get records by their abuser taking out warrants on them.

“They sort of get victimized twice, first physically and then by having a criminal record or even having an arrest,” said Johnson-Parris.

For more information or assistance, contact Legal Aid at 1-866-219-5262 or online at www.legalaidnc.org. !

CHANEL DAVIS, a journalism graduate from N.C.A&T, is a freelance journalist based in High Point who has worked in the industry for the past five years.

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