It’s normal to not recognize your past self after years of growth. It’s also common to feel stuck in your situation. This is what many people with criminal backgrounds endure—a yearning to move forward beyond their past while it continues to stick with them.
“It’s that stuck feeling that I think is something that, systematically, is curative,” says Megan Morrisey, the clinical coordinator of the Milwaukee Justice Center’s Mobile Legal Clinic and an adjunct professor at Marquette University Law School. “We can lift those labeling burdens off of people so that they’re free to achieve.”
Since 2019, hundreds have turned to the Milwaukee Justice Center’s Expungement and Pardon Legal Advice Clinic to get closer to their second chance, and the clinic’s transition to virtual appointments has only broadened their outreach.
Expungement and Pardon Clinic’s Beginnings
The Mobile Legal Clinic, a project of Marquette University Law School and the Milwaukee Bar Association, is a bus created to bring services provided by the Milwaukee Justice Center out to the community, specifically to those who have difficulty accessing free legal assistance. Morrisey noticed that many of those seeking help from the clinic wanted help clearing their past convictions.
To answer the high demand for help, she created the free Expungement and Pardon Legal Advice Clinic. A pardon is a grant of forgiveness from the governor that can restore certain rights and privileges, and an expungement is a process in which one’s record is sealed from state or federal record.
She began by contacting lawyers that she knew in the Milwaukee area, from places such as the Milwaukee Bar Association and Marquette University Law School, to see if they would be interested in volunteering their services.
“A lot of the clients that we assist in clinic, they have not only been impacted by a felony or even a misdemeanor conviction for years—often, it’s decades, and it’s often due to a nonviolent offense, a drug offense, potentially, and a case that they have long served the time that was ever allocated,” she says. “None of the cases that we help or assist on really were ever meant to be life sentences.”
Someone’s criminal record can impact many aspects of one’s life, including their ability to obtain federal financial aid, to travel to certain countries or even earn a license in their desired career field.
“So, here now they’ve put themselves through schooling, have really driven themselves and educated themselves and invested a lot of time and money and now cannot be hired and work in that capacity,” Morrisey continues. “That’s absolutely devastating.”
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Flaws in the Criminal Legal System
Marycruz Sanchez, Public Ally Milwaukee Americorp Member serving with the Milwaukee Justice Center’s Mobile Legal Clinic, helps determine if individuals are eligible for a pardon or expungement. While it is her job to turn some people away, those she can offer help to make it all worth it. Her passion to help is fueled by her frustration with the law and the justice system itself.
For example, she refers to Wisconsin’s requirement that, for someone to obtain an expungement, the conviction of a crime must have taken place before they turned 25. “I believe the judges are thinking of just the punishment at the moment, and not thinking ahead of time for forgiveness for this person,” Sanchez says.
Morrisey also cites the age requirement as a flaw in the system. “That’s extremely restrictive if you consider drug addiction, mental health, being the victim or being around any type of violence or domestic violence,” she adds.
Both Morrisey and Sanchez say that systemic racism in the legal system impacts many of the clients they assess. “And it’s something that is very frustrating for so many reasons,” Morrisey says.
Morrisey also cites how paying off fees and restitutions to receive an expungement holds back those who cannot afford to do so. “Unfortunately, many people are actually technically considered not having successfully completed their sentence,” Morrisey says.
Besides age and paying off fees, there are more restrictions on who can receive an expungement. Those at the clinic hope that proposed legislation, Senate Bill 78 and Assembly Bill 69, will be passed to increase the number of people who are eligible for expungements.
How the Clinic Works
After clients call, they are screened to see if they are eligible for a pardon or an expungement. Either way, the clinic calls back to explain what they can do. “Sometimes, they’re not even eligible, but just being able to give them information and give them a little guidance and have them be able to stand on a firmer foundation, that can be really relieving for them, too,” says Joe Furnstahl, student at Marquette Law School and intern for the Mobile Legal Clinic.
If eligible, clients can make an appointment to meet with a lawyer and two law students via Zoom for one hour. Because the pandemic forced the clinic to go virtual, they have been able to reach many clients beyond just Milwaukee. “We have literally helped people from all over the country that have a conviction here in Wisconsin,” Furnstahl says.
Marquette law students can learn in a hands-on environment and in the presence of an experienced lawyer. “So, in the case of expungement, it may be one law student is writing an affidavit with the client as well as drafting the letter that the lawyer is dictating,” Morissey explains. “Meanwhile, the other law student is taking notes to memorialize what they’re all doing. And then all of that, the documents that are drafted and the notes, are then emailed directly to the client right after the visit.”
Beyond the first appointment, the clinic provides free help along one’s journey; for example, clients can speak with a mock pardon advisory board to prepare themselves for the pardoning process.
The clinic is offered every Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., beginning May 26 and ending July 28. To see if you are eligible, call 414-278-2046 or email [email protected] The clinic will make accommodations for those who are unable to access Zoom.
If you are interested in volunteering your services, contact [email protected]