Removing Barriers to Second Chances
As a young man in his twenties, “Paul” was convicted of three drug charges and a misdemeanor for driving with a suspended license. Though he had transformed his life, training to become an HVAC technician, writing children’s books, and starting a nonprofit that connects people with volunteer opportunities in Boston, his criminal record held him back. He was turned down for jobs he was qualified for and had applications denied when applying to rent apartments. After unsuccessful attempts to seal his records on his own, he had nearly given up when he found his way to a pro bono legal clinic to help low-income individuals seal or expunge Massachusetts criminal records. With the help of attorney Nadia Do Canto, Paul’s record was sealed by the state’s probation office, and he’s now in the process of seeking expungement, or removal from his record, of two possession of marijuana charges.
“When he told me the probation office had agreed to seal his record, he almost cried on the phone with me,” Nadia said. “It encouraged him to move forward with his dreams.”
Mintz represented Paul through one of many pro bono projects the firm undertook to combat systemic racism after a police officer killed George Floyd in May 2020. That spring, amid nationwide protests against police brutality, attorney Nadia Do Canto and former Mintz attorney Rithika Kulathila approached the Chair of Mintz’s Pro Bono Committee, Sue Finegan, to find out if the firm was working on any pro bono projects to address racial injustice. Sue had learned of Massachusetts Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) sealing clinics being organized by the Lawyers Clearinghouse, a Boston-based organization that coordinates pro bono legal services for homeless and low-income individuals, and suggested that this might be something for the firm to explore.
Over the next several weeks, the three of them held numerous meetings with the organization, hashing out protocols for how Mintz attorneys would represent clients in the CORI clinics, including a system to manage the remote meetings necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic and how to handle court representation for clients who wanted to pursue expungement during this time. They recruited attorney Nick Armington, who had previously worked as a special assistant district attorney, to supervise this aspect of the project and provide suggestions to attorneys about particular clients before each clinic.
“Participating in the clinics is a great way for lawyers to use our education efficiently and effectively to make a real impact on someone’s life,” Nick said.
Nadia and Rithika recruited volunteers and organized the first clinic by July 2020, including working with Lawyers Clearinghouse to set up training and a pre-clinic prep session for the lawyers. At each clinic, one or more attorneys meet with a client in a private, virtual breakout room, interviewing them and gathering information while a Mintz staff member prepares the petition for the probation office. After the clinics, Mintz sends ready-to-mail packages with the petition and supporting documents to the clients, enabling them to simply sign the petition and mail it to the probation office.
The program has been highly successful: to date, 50 Mintz participants, including 40 attorneys, have served 36 clients through five clinics. Ten professional staff members assisted, typically by taking notes during interviews, filling out forms the clients need to sign, and sending them to the clients. Project analyst Sergey Smirnov and Sue’s assistant Emily Paone provided extensive support for the clinics, and Emily also assisted with conflict checks and other administrative details.
“The work we’re doing on these clinics is incredibly impactful. By changing a person’s life, you’re also changing the family’s life, and the family is changing the community’s life,” Nadia said.
In another major racial justice initiative, attorneys in the firm’s Health Law Practice worked on an extensive research project for MLPB, a nonprofit organization formerly known as MedicalLegal Partnership | Boston, that connects health care providers with lawyers to work on improving the health and well-being of vulnerable populations. In working with MLPB, the attorneys researched how housing authorities across the country evaluate applicants with an “open” criminal charge, or when they have not yet been convicted or acquitted.
This project began in the summer of 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum. Several associates in the firm’s Health Law Practice expressed a desire to get involved in a project to address racial inequities. Attorney Cassie Paollilo asked Sue what lawyers in that practice area could do as a group, and Sue put her in touch with MLPB. The organization’s leaders were troubled by the fact that many of their clients, especially individuals of color, were unable to obtain public housing because they had open criminal charges, so MLPB asked Mintz to research the policies of housing authorities around the country on this issue.
In most cases, because those in custody or who are believed to be a risk to society are prioritized, the affected MLPB clients with open drug charges can wait months or years for a court date. The obstacles faced by these clients struck a chord with Cassie, who serves on the board of an organization that provides behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment, and she jumped at the chance to oversee the project.
“Stable housing is critical to people when they’re trying to go through treatment and overcome their addictions. The issues we identified in this project highlighted the racial disparities among people struggling with substance use disorder,” Cassie said.
To give MLBP a national overview of the issue, the Mintz team looked at housing authorities in cities with a very high density of residents — across 10 states in different regions and with different political leanings. They ultimately reviewed the policies of 28 housing authorities plus New Hampshire cooperatives for low-income owners of manufactured housing. They also examined US Department of Housing and Urban Development guidance, which doesn’t bar applicants with open convictions from public housing.
Many of the Health Law Practice attorneys participated, including almost all of the associates, a roster that included attorneys Deb Daccord, Jane Haviland, Joanne Hawana, Bridgette Keller, Pamela Kramer, Lauren Moldawer, Rachel Irving Pitts, Rachel Yount, and former Mintz attorneys Daryl Berke, Michelle Caton, David Chorney, and Nili Yolin. Other participants included project analyst David Friedman and former Mintz project analysts Margaret Jewett and Taylor Jones.
Karen Lovitch, the Chair of the firm’s Health Law and Health Care Enforcement Defense Practices, said the project enabled attorneys in her group to use their particular legal skills to contribute to the fight against racism.
“Appropriate housing is a significant social determinant of health and helping MLPB gather in-depth information about the policies of public housing authorities dovetailed with our interest and commitment to health law and the health care system,” Karen said.
Over two months of intensive research, the team found that the authorities’ online policies about criminal records were often outdated or simply missing. In a few cases, attorneys waited weeks for information from a housing authority. The Mintz team ultimately prepared a comprehensive overview memo and chart for MLPB for their internal use. The organization will also use the information to help its health and human service partners support housing insecure patients with criminal records, according to the nonprofit’s law and policy director, Jeannine Casselman.
Directing the MLPB research project and learning how institutions treat people with criminal records inspired Cassie to volunteer at a Mintz CORI clinic. Her work to help a client who struggled with substance abuse issues seal her record gave Cassie a first-hand look at why equitable policies on criminal records matter.
“It was eye-opening to see the challenges people face and how all of these factors can compound themselves,” Cassie said.