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Minnesota’s Legal Community Unites in Pro Bono Criminal Justice Activities After George Floyd

March 10, 2021, 9:00 AM

As the anniversary of George Floyd’s death nears, eyes are on Minneapolis once again in anticipation for former police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial and continued calls for justice—for Floyd and countless others whose lives have been taken or unfairly impacted by social and criminal injustices. Within communities of color and their allies, there is a continued outpouring of anger and a shared sense of urgency for positive change.

Lawyers and other legal professionals are in a unique position to harness that energy and bring important resources to the table. A collaborative effort between law firms, in-house counsel, civil legal aid organizations, and government lawyers led to the recent development of a project called Removing Barriers to bring volunteers together to address collateral consequences of involvement with the criminal justice system and the disproportionate impact it has on communities of color.

Minnesota law firms and corporate legal departments have been working to address the disproportionate impact the criminal justice system has had on communities of color long before the summer of 2020. Since Floyd’s death, those efforts have accelerated with a groundswell of support.

Lawyers Working Together on the Removing Barriers Project

After so many years of working closely with individuals navigating the impacts of the state’s criminal justice system, it was clear that working in silos—and providing isolated pro bono legal representation on individual cases—was not going to solve systemic problems. Volunteers wanted to do more during this moment in history.

Considering other state-wide collaborative efforts as inspiration, this project was designed to provide volunteers with the opportunity to be a part of deeper, lasting change.

Law firms and others working on this project were compelled to think and act beyond past efforts. We needed to work with a vision that addressed damages from the past, while leaning into issues of present and future injustices, including the systems that create them.

Project organizers are assessing the legal community’s collective role in short-term and long-term solutions by pursuing policy efforts and increasing direct services to low-income individuals. The best work comes when these sectors unite, learn from each other and work together to shift paradigms.

What We’re Doing

Removing Barriers focuses on four main areas of activity:

  • Education: We educate the legal community about racial disparities in the criminal justice system, collateral consequences, and barriers to second chances.
  • Expungement: We partner with Volunteer Lawyers Network and others to help individuals quickly and efficiently expunge eligible records.
  • Fines and Fees: We explore ways to address the impact of accumulated court fees and fines.
  • Long-Term Systemic Change: We partner with organizations advocating for changes to the vast web of laws and policies that create permanent punishments.

The project’s initial focus is on ensuring resources are available for those seeking to expunge their criminal records. A criminal record punishes those who have interacted with the criminal justice system long after their sentence is over. Expungement removes the stigma of this record, allowing individuals to overcome a major barrier to achieving their post-conviction goals.

The project is based on the concept that second chances begin with hope and opportunity—good jobs and safe and secure housing. Too often, the criminal justice system makes it nearly impossible for people to have a meaningful second chance.

Liza Messinger, criminal expungement program manager and resource attorney at Volunteer Lawyers Network said that nearly every client “wants a criminal expungement because they have been denied safe, stable housing and job opportunities. Some have been forced into homelessness because nobody will rent to them. When clients successfully go through this process, it means their lives will no longer be defined by their criminal records.”

Future Plans

As Removing Barriers expands, project organizers hope to further reduce systemic barriers and barriers to second chances.

By focusing on criminal expungement, we build on existing work and deploy volunteers for immediate impact through direct service. The project is also engaging in broader, longer-term work to address systemic issues—whether addressing fines and fees as a barrier to expungement or addressing inefficiency in the expungement system itself.

Going forward, project volunteers will continue to gather information from those affected by systemic racism, as well as advocates and researchers who have been working in the field for decades. Through mapping and learning, project organizers hope to become real partners and allies to help amplify the efforts of nonprofit and government leaders.

We believe this project takes collaboration within the Minnesota legal community to a new level. The project will continue to conduct systematic outreach to nonprofit leaders in the legal community and beyond to understand their work, needs and how we can contribute to make a positive difference.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Cynthia Anderson is pro bono consultant at Ballard Spahr LLP in Minneapolis. She works collaboratively to create and implement projects addressing the legal needs of low-income individuals and others in need of legal services.

David March is founder and chair of the Minnesota Corporate Pro Bono Council, a nonprofit organization that includes leaders from more than 30 companies dedicated to increasing the level of pro bono work performed by in-house counsel at Minnesota-based companies and companies with law departments in Minnesota.

Kelly Tautges is pro bono counsel & director of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath in Minneapolis. She leads the professional team that manages and supports the pro bono practice and community service activities.