We hear a lot about injustice today in the form of continuing racial tensions, worsening economic inequality and a dysfunctional criminal justice system. At the start of 2014, these discussions were largely limited to non-profit, government and community organizations who work with those affected, and among those facing these challenges in poor and mostly minority communities.
But by the end of 2014, discussions and debates about injustice are no longer pushed to the margins — this issue is now part of our social media feeds, news stories, community meetings, and family get togethers. We may not agree on solutions or causes, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to say we live in a country that gives everyone a fair shake.
As a tumultuous year comes to a close — we take note of a few things in Memphis that give us hope. Take a quick look, by the numbers, at efforts in our city that remind us:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Each day, thousands of Memphians are trying to get a job or a professional license — but can’t. One major obstacle is a criminal record, which is often a major barrier to employment long after the sentence has expired. Tennessee has narrow expungement laws that can help, but even in the few instances in which someone qualifies, applying for an expungement can require legal guidance, paperwork and hundreds of dollars in filing fees. In 2014, the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office assisted with paperwork and paid filing fees for 15 people seeking expungement or citizenship right’s restoration. Find out more about the Clean Slate Fund established through a Memphis Bar Foundation grant.
In 2014, the Jericho Project diverted 97 people battling mental illness and/or addiction from incarceration. Since its inception, nearly 60% of those participating in Jericho have successfully completed their recovery plans; they have also avoided further contact with the criminal justice system. You can learn more about the Jericho Project here.
Advance Memphis was founded in 1999 to bring economic revitalization to one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Since then, the people of the 38126 community have partnered with this non-profit to build an impressive record. In 2014 alone, 132 people found employment after gaining job and life skills training through Advance Memphis. Read about Advance Memphis here.
The Community Alliance for the Homeless (CAFTH) reports that 635 Memphians left homelessness for permanent housing in 2014! These impressive gains were made possible by a network of providers throughout the greater Memphis area. These efforts were coordinated through CAFTH, a private, non-profit entity that provides planning, technical assistance, and service coordination to public and private agencies working to end homelessness in Memphis and Shelby County. Learn about The Community Alliance for the Homeless here.
On the second Saturday morning of each month, you’ll find civil and criminal lawyers from firms big and small gathered at the Memphis Public Library. It’s the Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS)/Memphis Bar Association (MBA) Saturday Legal Clinic where anyone who needs free legal advice can get it. In 2014, lawyers volunteering with the MALS/MBA Saturday Legal Clinic served 908 people! Click here to find out more about the MALS/MBA Saturday Legal Clinic.
Lifeline to Success is a non-profit that uses training and community service to provide those returning from incarceration some of the tools they need to have a more productive life. People accepted into the training must begin taking classes 6 months before being released. After their release, they immediately begin training with Lifeline. The program also runs the highly respected Blight Patrol — people returning from incarceration are put to work clearing blighted lots in Frayser. The result — the Blight Patrol provides a much needed service in a community littered with vacant properties and those doing the work find purpose in helping the community. In 2014, 89 ex-offenders participated in Lifeline to Success and cleared 3,500 lots in Memphis! You can learn more about Lifeline to Success here.
If you see a group of cyclists handing out small, shiny, tinfoil packages around Memphis — you may have spotted the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry. Each Wednesday evening and Saturday morning, volunteers gather to first roll nutritious burritos and put together supplemental packets for those in need (e.g. bug spray in the summer, coats and gloves in the winter). Then they ride through the city distributing these packets to those experiencing homelessness and anyone who is hungry and in need. By serving approximately 300 people each week, The Urban Bicycle Food Ministry estimates it has rolled more than 20,000 burritos in 2014! Read about the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry here.
These seven groups are but a snapshot of the organizations doing good and difficult work in Memphis and Shelby County. These efforts bring hope to those who have none and help clear a path for Memphians who continue to face barriers in our social, civic and criminal justice systems. In 2015, consider supporting these and other organizations that work to bring more equity and access to justice in our community. And when you read about other good and just work being done — share it with us on social media using #SeeJustice
Here’s to a more just Memphis in 2015!
But the new certificate comes only after some procedural hurdles and, of course, a fee.
The law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in a General Assembly not known for its cooperation. It was sponsored by two Shelby County lawmakers from very different districts — a white Republican representing the largely middle class-to-wealthy constituents in eastern Shelby County and a black Democrat elected from the the much less affluent, southwest part of Memphis.
The Certificate of Employability Act became law on July 1, 2014. The legislation is an attempt to give those who have criminal convictions the opportunity to obtain a certificate that provides protections for potential employers. The hope is that a vetted and comprehensive certification process will encourage employers to take a chance on hiring those with criminal convictions and in doing so improve overall community safety by providing more people a path to employment and a more productive life.
The law was hailed by the editorial staff of the Commercial Appeal recently as “one of the more important pieces of legislation to come out of the General Assembly.”
Here’s how it works — if a petitioner is granted the certificate by a judge, he or she can present the certificate to a potential employer. The certificate provides the employer with protection against claims of negligent hiring practices related to the applicant’s criminal background. The certificate, of course, does not guarantee hiring and does not prevent an employer from examining the applicant’s criminal record. It simply provides the employer some legal protection, as well as the knowledge that the district attorney’s office and a judge have reviewed an individual’s background and references and determined that her or she does not pose a public safety risk.
This narrow law represents a slight shift in Tennessee policy toward the national, bi-partisan movement for larger criminal justice reform. Just this week, U.S. Senators Rand Paul (R) and Cory Booker (D) jointly proposed legislation for a wholesale “overhaul” of the criminal justice system, which includes a push for expungement of non-violent criminal charges.
Hopefully, this act will have a broader reach than Tennessee’s expungement law which was passed in 2012. The expungement legislation, also sponsored by Rep. Camper, sought to wipe clean the criminal records of individuals convicted of certain crimes. But given that the law only applied to those with one non-violent felony or misdemeanor and with no other criminal convictions in the last five years, the number of those who actually qualify is small. The law also came with a hefty $350 filing fee, which was inexplicably raised to $450 by the General Assembly this past session.
While this new legislation holds promise, it falls well short of what most people will need.
Like the expungement act, the Employee Certificate Act also includes a financial component. A fee is not specified in the law, but a petitioner will be required to pay a filing fee. In Shelby County, that fee is generally in the $150 range.
Most damaging, however, is that the application process is long and unwieldy and will most likely require an attorney. The petitioner will need to prepare a petition, pay a filing fee, solicit personal references, and appear before a court. Before any hearing, however, the district attorney general and the appropriate clerk’s office must conduct their own verifications and notify any victims involved in the original crime(s). These are all time-consuming and complex tasks, and the awarding of the Certificate of Employability is ultimately a judge’s decision.
Certificate in hand, it is then up to the successful petitioner to find an employer willing to take a chance on her based on this new piece of court-issued paper, and that is no small task itself.
Click here to download the application form, which is available through the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts.