Second chances in the Second City

At a June clinic held by Cabrini Green Legal Aid at Willow Creek Community Church in the Loop, pro bono attorneys met with 20 clients who hope to have a judge remove  barriers to employment created by their past criminal convictions. - Lisa Predko
At a June clinic held by Cabrini Green Legal Aid at Willow Creek Community Church in the Loop, pro bono attorneys met with 20 clients who hope to have a judge remove  barriers to employment created by their past criminal convictions. — Lisa Predko
August 2014

Jenny De Leon was 16 when the police raided her family’s Humboldt Park home. She admits to having sold marijuana around then, but it was crack cocaine the police found that day. And her grandmother was put in handcuffs.

For De Leon, it wasn’t a pleasant place to live. The majority of her housemates were addicts. Alcohol was abused. Gangs and violence were the norm. But a family’s bond still meant something powerful.

“In my family, loyalty stands strong,” she said. “You don’t tell on each other. You do for each other.”

And that is how a 16-year-old came to throw herself, screaming, onto a police officer. De Leon told police that the crack cocaine belonged to her, not her grandmother, and she eventually received her first felony drug charge, two years’ probation and a criminal background that barricaded the clearest road she had to escape her family’s substance-abuse troubles: A good-paying job.

Until last year, De Leon was one of the estimated 3.9 million people in Illinois — about 1 in 3 — who have a criminal record and could benefit from legal counsel, according to a 2011 report by the National Employment Law Project. And as is the case for many of those millions — quite possibly the majority — the idea of an “expunged” or “sealed” record is a much-talked-about, but nonetheless mythical, Holy Grail for De Leon.

Expungement — a virtual clean slate — is available only to those who were never convicted of a criminal offense. Some misdemeanors and a handful of felonies can be sealed (hidden from most employers’ view and unable to be the basis of hiring decisions) so long as four years have passed since the completion of a person’s most recent sentence.

Those rules make expungement and sealing out of reach for the majority of ex-offenders, and few employers overlook felonies. Of the 4,237 clients who sought help last year at Cabrini Green Legal Aid’s expungement help desk in the Daley Center, about 65 percent could not expunge or fully seal their record.

What is available to people like De Leon is something called a “certificate of good conduct,” granted by state court trial judges.

It’s what helped De Leon — who hasn’t been arrested in nine years — feel secure in her job helping the homeless at a suburban charity. It’s what makes her excited about the master’s degree she is pursuing in addiction counseling. It’s what makes her a rare success story for the justice system, considering half of Americans who leave jail or prison will be back in the criminal justice system within three years.

Certificates of good conduct are perhaps the closest Illinois comes to officially giving felons a second chance. And thanks to an ambitious pro bono project that 16 of the state’s largest law firms embarked upon one year ago, the second-chance pipeline is flowing faster than ever.

Making an IMPACT

The IMPACT Project — which stands for Involving More Pro bono Attorneys in our Community Together — is an effort by the Association of Pro Bono Counsel, a group of large firm pro bono leaders, to combine the resources of America’s largest firms to bridge various justice gaps in eight big cities.

In New York, for instance, large firm lawyers are providing legal resources for homeless youth. Domestic violence victims are being targeted for general legal help in Los Angeles. Philadelphia attorneys are helping female immigrants who are victims of abuse.

Since the profession’s large firms introduced the position of pro bono coordinator, many firms have expressed the belief that their pro bono programs can accomplish more by working together than they ever could on their own. The IMPACT project is an example.

“The idea of having 150 volunteers from multiple firms for this IMPACT project is a lot different than saying … (one law firm) might have 25 or 30 people volunteering and we’ll see who shows up to one clinic,” said Greg McConnell, director of public interest law at Winston & Strawn and one of many large firm pro bono coordinators involved in creating the program. “I think that changes the dynamic from business as usual.”

Latonia Haney Keith, pro bono counsel at McDermott Will & Emery, said Chicago’s pro bono leaders at law firms and legal-aid organizations decided to focus on criminal records relief after asking two questions: What are the primary legal needs in Chicago that impact a majority of the organizations in the room? And where is there a gap that law firms can bridge?

“Everyone in the legal-aid organizations spoke about this problem they were seeing in their client base with barriers to employment,” Keith said. “Really, when you dug down to the root of any one of their problems, the reason they had those issues was they didn’t have money because they didn’t have access to employment.”

The reason for that, often, was a criminal background.

In Chicago, the IMPACT project is nicknamed the “Second Chances” program. It matches volunteer lawyers with clients who are seeking a certificate of good conduct or a “health-care waiver” — which removes statutory barriers for health-care businesses to hire people with criminal backgrounds.

A certificate of good conduct, which is granted by the court, is defined as “a specific finding of rehabilitation with the force and effect of a final judgment on the merits.”

For regulated industries including schools, park districts and public-transit agencies, it can waive specific statutory bars to employment. For example, the Illinois Metropolitan Transit Authority Act makes it illegal for public-transit agencies to hire people who have certain criminal convictions — such as all Class X felonies, aggravated driving under the influence, domestic battery and forcible felonies that “result in great bodily harm.” And the certificate provides employers with immunity from claims of negligent hiring.

The Chicago program is being run in conjunction with Cabrini Green Legal Aid — which has had a focus since 2003 on providing legal relief for the barriers that criminal records present. As part of the program, the sponsoring firms partly funded the CGLA’s hiring of Courtney Kelledes, a 2013 DePaul University College of Law graduate who finds clients, reviews their eligibility for those alternative forms of criminal records relief and sets up the clinics that have so far helped 135 clients through mid-July.

For Kelledes, the reasons for the program are straightforward.

“The idea that we keep people out of work indefinitely for mistakes they’ve made in the past doesn’t seem to line up with the American ethos of being able to achieve if you work hard and try hard,” she said. “And this opens up a door so that hopefully an employer feels like they have the opportunity to give this person a chance.”

Roughly 160 pro bono attorneys attended at least one of the clinics — there had been five between Sept. 20 and June 20. As of mid-July, there have been 24 certificates of good conduct and 10 health-care waivers granted.

“This has allowed us to quintuple the number of certificates we’re able to do, because we now have access to hundreds of attorneys,” said Gretchen Slusser, CGLA’s executive director.

The program’s next step is to recruit lawyers from firms other than the 16 currently sponsoring and largely staffing the clinics, which take place every two to three months.

Recognition for a turnaround

Room 101 of the Leighton Criminal Court Building at 26th Street and California Avenue is an unfortunate sort of Ellis Island. For individuals facing felony charges, it’s the entry point to the Cook County criminal justice system.

Paul Biebel, presiding judge of the Criminal Division, reads a felony charge assignment call on June 30, a Monday morning, directing defendants — predominately black and Hispanic — to one of 39 judges. With 32 judges located at the Leighton building, it’s the largest and busiest single criminal courthouse in the nation. It handles more than 20,000 cases a year.

The process begins with a blur of efficiency. All of the defendants know their next destinations within 15 minutes — the duration of the assignment call. But it’s impossible to know where their journey will end.

Three days prior, on June 27, the adjacent Cook County Jail housed 8,648. Eighty-two percent of those processed there test positive for illicit drugs at the time of their arrests, according to the court.

Drug use is one of the toughest battles anyone faces in getting away from the criminal justice system. Gangs are tough to quit. Addiction recovery is prone to fits and starts.

And that’s a large part of the reason Biebel is impressed with the people who turn his courtroom into an exit point: Room 101 is also where Biebel and Circuit Judge Thomas Byrne preside over hearings for certificates of good conduct and health-care waivers that let former criminals get jobs at hospitals and other health-care employers.

“Ten pounds is hard to lose,” Biebel said. “Beating heroin and beating cocaine is obviously much harder. But people do it. And to my way of thinking, that’s a really impressive accomplishment.”

Biebel said certificates of good conduct and health-care waivers are being granted more frequently. He also credited the deferred prosecution felony program launched by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office in 2011 with helping some people charged with felonies today avoid barriers to employment tomorrow.

The state’s attorney program allows people facing a first, non-violent felony charge to enter a nine- to 12-month supervision program that can include drug or alcohol counseling, taking high school equivalency classes, gaining employment and attending various court dates.

Since it was introduced, about 1,500 people have participated. Of those who have been in the program long enough to have a result, 78 percent have completed it successfully and had the felony charge dropped. Of the roughly 400 who successfully completed the program, only 5 percent had been charged with another felony within a year.

“We want to make sure … the impact continues after they’re finished with us,” said Mark Kammerer, director of the state’s attorney’s alternative prosecution and alternative sentencing programs. “And so far, that’s what we’re seeing. Even though they finished their time in the program, they’re still avoiding further contact with the criminal justice system.”

De Leon
Jenny De Leon
Photo by Lisa Predko.

De Leon — who was arrested as a 16-year-old in Humboldt Park — received a certificate of good conduct from Biebel this year. She began her turnaround nine years ago, at age 20, following her second drug arrest and a week in jail — where she committed to changing her life.

“I told myself it’s so easy for me to call up a connect, get some drugs and make money. That’s so easy,” De Leon said. “But it’s hard to change. I don’t even know where to begin. But I said I’m going to try it.”

She started by getting a job at a bakery in Humboldt Park. Then she began volunteering at a methadone clinic. While volunteering, she attended St. Augustine College, where she earned a certificate in alcohol and drug addiction counseling in 2011. She worked in that field briefly, before losing her position as a result of budget cuts.

She flirted with what she described as a dream job in 2012 — working with at-risk youth at a school in Humboldt Park. On her application, she informed the employer of her criminal background, and the interview went great. She got her hopes up — something she said doesn’t do often in the interview process.

“It’s hard to keep upbeat knowing that you might be wasting your time,” she said.

Then she got a return phone call offering her the job on the condition that her background check showed up clear. The interviewer had accidentally overlooked it. De Leon didn’t get the job.

“I was heartbroken,” she said. “The pay was good. It was right in my community. I get to help individuals that I knew. It was just heartbreaking to me.”

In October 2012, she started working part time at her current job at DuPage Pads, which provides temporary housing for homeless people. She attended the CGLA clinic last year because she was still part time (she works there full time now). She believed the certificate of good conduct and a health-care waiver would bolster her claim that she was not a liability for employers.

“I just needed something to prove to people. Man, just give me a shot,” she said.

Crafting the narrative

When Daron Parker, a 48-year-old from Matteson, walked into Willow Creek Community Church’s 418 S. Wabash Ave. offices on June 20, a specter accompanied him — just as it did for the other 19 clients who worked with pro bono attorneys that day.

For Parker, it was the ghost of a felony drug possession conviction he received as a 23-year-old. Since then, he has obtained a commercial driver’s license, and he now does maintenance work on school buses. His criminal background restricts him from putting his license to work and driving the buses. He hopes the certificate of good conduct will change that.

“It was a mistake I made. I own up to it,” Parker said of his conviction. “This will just open up doors for me.”

After speaking with an attorney at the clinic for about an hour, Parker was hopeful he will be granted a certificate of good conduct: “I don’t see why not,” he said. He was comfortable telling his lawyer his story, he said, and he was appreciative of the help.

“That was beautiful,” he said. “They were very informative.”

Doressia Hutton, a Winston & Strawn partner, and Ben Wojcik, an associate at the same firm, represented a man at that June clinic who was seeking a certificate of good conduct due to a 15-year-old conviction on possession of an illicit substance with intent to distribute.

Now married with two children, sober and previously having odd jobs — in banks, as a driver and as a data-entry specialist — he wanted to work in the food service industry.

“I think there are deserving people who have made mistakes in the past,” Hutton said. “If it’s a conviction from 18 years ago holding you back, and if I’m a lawyer who can help assist with that, then it’s my responsibility to do that.”

Wojcik said the work he and Hutton will prepare for their client would be of the same quality a corporate client would expect. It might require an extra bit of compassion and a willingness to help, he said.

“I don’t think being wealthy or poor should affect your access to legal services,” he said. “And that’s why working with CGLA is so rewarding.”

The evidence that Judges Biebel and Byrne use to arrive at their rulings is most often compiled by the pro bono attorneys who volunteer with CGLA — and often at clinics.

Proving rehabilitation may be a bit murkier than some legal concepts corporate attorneys may be accustomed to. It requires telling a story, weaving in pieces of disparate evidence.

For instance, friends, family members or community leaders can write “letters of support” for a client seeking a certificate of good conduct or health-care waiver. Certifications, diplomas and degrees earned since the offense are used as proof. A history of employment — despite the complications involved in that for those with criminal backgrounds — can be persuasive. Proving sobriety can be crucial.

Ashley Kircher Laken, a Seyfarth Shaw associate, and her husband, Brad Laken, a Kirkland & Ellis associate, represented De Leon. Laken said she focused on the theme that De Leon — who grew up surrounded by drug addicts — has dedicated her career to helping people recover from addiction.

“She was young at the time of her convictions,” Laken said. “Since that time, she’s put herself through school … (and) she’s just demonstrated a clear commitment to helping others.”

For De Leon, the certificate of good conduct and health-care waiver Laken helped obtain was just the start. Afterward, De Leon learned about a petition for clemency — a governor-granted expungement that is equal to a pardon. A private attorney told her it might cost between $5,000 and $7,500.

In a follow-up e-mail thanking Laken for her help, De Leon said she was saving up to apply for clemency — a process that currently takes about three years, due to a backlog.

Laken responded that she would represent De Leon in her petition for clemency. Pro bono.

“My heart was filled with joy. I was like the happiest person in the world,” De Leon said. “It was amazing. Who does that?”