Having a criminal record can create obstacles for young adults and juveniles when they try to get a job or rent an apartment.
Through the Juvenile Re-entry Assistance Program (JRAP) at Rutgers Law School’s Camden location, ex-offenders up to the age of 24 in Camden can get help in resolving their civil legal issues and possibly getting their records expunged.
“What that means for most purposes, for a background check, a crime has not occurred,” says Bill McLaughlin, the managing attorney for JRAP and an adjunct professor at Rutgers Law School in Camden. “It doesn’t necessarily vacate someone’s conviction but what it means is that everyone who does a background check, it will show that someone has a clear background.”
Having a clean record helps juvenile offenders in finding a job and securing housing, since employers and landlords conduct background checks, and may not hire or rent to someone who has a criminal record.
Under McLaughlin’s supervision, four Rutgers Law School students at the Camden location advise clients and help them resolve the issues.
“Working with the clients has a lot of practical application because you’re in the field and on the ground and doing it,” says Heather Anne Seningen, a third-year Rutgers Law student from Cape May.
“After learning about the re-entry process and how the judicial process stops when they leave prison made me interested in the class,” says Chelsea Williams of Santa Cruz, Calif. “There are so many opportunities that they don’t even know that they have because they don’t know what their legal status is, or how to overcome certain obstacles that they may have gained while they were in prison. Being able to help them helps reduce recidivism rates, it helps active members of communities be leaders.”
JRAP also assists in helping with matters such as child support orders and restoring driver’s licenses.
“Where they came from is where I came from,” says third-year law student Frederic Smith of Collingswood. “I think helping them is in a sense helping myself. It’s allowing me to give back a little bit, but also get that experience of what it is to effect change.”
Under a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, McLaughlin and his students work with clients they meet at several sites affiliated with the Housing Authority of the City of Camden. At the YouthBuild Academy in Camden, which offers job training programs and helps youths 16-24 years old get their GED or high school diploma, McLaughlin works with David Goodman, the academy’s director, to connect with youths who need help.
“Sometimes they don’t know where to turn,” says Goodman. “Some of them run into obstacles because their record is following them wherever they go. Having the opportunity to clear that up while they’re going through our program is a great dual process, so when they complete it, they can just move forward with their lives.”
Chris Jackson of Lansing, Mich., a third-year law student, plans to pursue a career in labor and employment law, but he’s interested in helping people in the surrounding community while he’s attending law school.
“I think it will make me a more well-rounded attorney,” says Jackson. “I enjoy talking to people, asking them what they want, and how to get them there.”