06 Dec 2019

New Legal Services Project Seeks to Address Legal Needs, Remove Barriers

ALSO’s growing legal services project is addressing barriers to employment, housing and other issues that community residents often face. The project responds to needs identified by a community survey of Humboldt Park residents that was conducted by ALSO in 2017. The survey revealed that community members viewed barriers to employment and housing as the top two issues impacting their safety. 

The project is an effort to address a gap that impacts many in the Chicago area. According to the Chicago Bar Foundation, about 600,000 low-income people will have a legal need in Cook County this year. Fewer than half of the people in need of legal help will be able to get it due to a shortage of pro bono and legal aid resources.

For many members of the communities that ALSO serves - including Humboldt Park, West Humboldt Park, Hermosa, Logan Square, and West Town -  access to low-cost or free legal services has long been unavailable. This means that legal issues often remain unresolved. ALSO’s project provides free or low-cost legal services for community members, clients and staff. For community members with criminal records, accessing legal services can have a major impact on their lives as they try to find a home, a job, resolve custody or parenting time issues, address immigration status, obtain benefits, or meet other needs. 

In 2019, ALSO established a formal partnership with the Chicago Legal Clinic (CLC) to offer free legal services for community members. Once each month, a CLC attorney is available at ALSO’s main office, located at 2401 W. North Avenue, to consult with community members who are facing legal challenges. In addition to offering representation for individuals seeking to have their criminal records expunged or sealed, community members can also seek advice and guidance on a full range of other legal issues including family law (e.g., child support, custody, divorce, parentage, and parenting time), housing (e.g., landlord/tenant, foreclosure), public benefits (e.g., food stamps/SNAP and TANF), immigration, and wills and trusts. 

Pilot Project Identified Significant Need for Community-Based Legal Services

The project is an expansion of a two-year pilot project that offered opportunities for community members to participate in Expungement and Sealing Workshops at ALSO’s main office. At the 2017 and 2018 workshops, volunteer attorneys from Chicago Legal Clinic and other organizations completed petition forms on behalf of community members seeking expungement or sealing. As part of the pilot project, ALSO paid court filing fees and other associated costs such as drug screening tests required for the expungement of some cases. 

The pilot project was launched because ALSO, which works to address community violence through its Safe Streets programs, knew about the high rates of disconnection from employment in the neighborhoods it serves, along with high numbers of individuals who are re-entering the community after a period of incarceration. “We knew that our program participants were often struggling because of past involvement with the criminal justice system, and that their records followed them even though they had been able to change their life circumstances,” said Safe Streets Director Jorge Matos. 

The need for community-based legal services in the neighborhood became apparent at the first Expungement and Sealing Workshop. The workshop had been scheduled for four hours on a Saturday, but was extended to 8 hours to accommodate all participants. Over the two-year pilot period, ALSO assisted with the filing of petitions for expungement or sealing of over 300 cases in Cook County. The overwhelming majority of petitions were eventually granted by the court. 

Representation on Expungement and Sealing Cases

“As part of our new legal services project, we are offering free legal representation on expungement and sealing of cases, in partnership with the Chicago Legal Clinic. While the process is theoretically one that an individual can embark on without a lawyer, it can be extraordinarily complicated for a layperson to fulfill all of the requirements without expert guidance,” says Mary Seighman, Director of Policy and Justice Initiatives at ALSO. 

 

Multiple steps must be taken before an individual can file a petition, including careful examination of criminal records, analysis of eligibility of each case for either expungement or sealing, and legal document preparation. In some circumstances, the state’s attorney’s office will file an objection to the petition. In that case a court hearing will be set. As part of ALSO’s legal representation in these cases, an attorney will represent petitioners at these hearings, and will make arguments on behalf of petitioners. 

Nelson Torres, an outreach worker at ALSO, was one of the petitioners who participated in a 2018 workshop. Nearly all of his criminal records were expunged as a result. “I have been speaking with friends about it,” he says. “I tell them how easy it is to get denied for a rental apartment, or maybe get a message that they can’t work somewhere because of their background. Getting your records expunged will make it much easier for you in those situations.”

Drew Curle, Supervising Attorney at the Chicago Legal Clinic (CLC). ALSO has a formal partnership with CLC to offer free legal services for community members.

Drew Curle, Supervisory Attorney at CLC’s Austin office, is available for consultation appointments at the ALSO office once per month. Curle reflected on the partnership: “I am seeing firsthand how big the demand is. Working with ALSO, we can reach people in need of legal services because the organization is closely connected to people on the ground and provides a range of supports to the community.”

“We are incredibly excited about our partnership with CLC and the delivery of legal services, because we know that resolution of legal issues can mean the removal of significant barriers in people’s lives,” said Seighman. “It can open up possibilities that may have previously seemed impossible.”

RECAP

ALSO’s growing legal services project is addressing barriers to employment, housing and other issues that community residents often face.

For many members of the communities that ALSO serves - including Humboldt Park, West Humboldt Park, Hermosa, Logan Square, and West Town -  access to low-cost or free legal services has long been unavailable. 

In addition to offering representation for individuals seeking to have their criminal records expunged or sealed, community members can also seek advice and guidance on a full range of other legal issues including family law (e.g., child support, custody, divorce, parentage, and parenting time), housing (e.g., landlord/tenant, foreclosure), public benefits (e.g., food stamps/SNAP and TANF), immigration, and wills and trusts. 

In 2019, ALSO established a formal partnership with the Chicago Legal Clinic (CLC) to offer free legal services for community members. 

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ALSO is an organization committed to ending violence in homes and communities nationwide. Your contribution will help us live out our mission to develop, promote and implement model programs in order to build a movement for peace and safety in the coming year.

With your support, we will:

  • Continue providing jobs for in-risk youth through our 10-10-10 job training program.
  • Provide bystander intervention training for youth and community members, giving people the skills to know how to increase safety in high risk situations.
  • Explore and reveal the relationship between intimate partner and community violence to create programming that will reduce both.

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