Host: First Defense Legal Aid
Many employers use criminal background checks to screen job applicants. As a result, no matter how qualified they may be, many candidates are denied jobs merely because they possess criminal records. The same is often true for potential renters or homebuyers with criminal records. Options exist to mitigate a criminal record’s impact on employment and housing opportunities: for those who are eligible, petitions to expunge or seal criminal records, health care waivers, certificates of relief from disabilities, and executive clemency petitions may be the first steps toward gainful employment and safe, affordable housing. This is especially true for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. With access to criminal records services, the homeless population can significantly improve their ability to compete for jobs and housing.
Following a family tragedy, Cynthia left behind a successful career in the private sector to dedicate her life to serving others. At the age of 54, made the decision to attend law school. With the goal of immersing herself as quickly as possible in the nonprofit sector, Cynthia began her career as Cabrini Green Legal Aid’s (CGLA) Criminal Records Intern while still a 2L. In this capacity, Cynthia began facilitating connections between clients of a local homeless shelter—where she was also, simultaneously a volunteer—and CGLA, helping many homeless individuals to clear their records and secure housing.
As an Equal Justice Works Fellow at CGLA, Cynthia recruited 150 law students, five attorneys, and three additional volunteers to form CGLA’s Criminal Records Corps, a program that continued her mission to provide criminal records services to individuals in Chicago who are homeless or at the risk of homelessness. This innovative partnership model of service delivery, which has since been integrated into CGLA’s general intake process, resulted in the handling of criminal records services for 766 clients. Cynthia herself represented 65 clients in court and administrative proceedings during her Fellowship.
After her Fellowship, Cynthia became CGLA’s Director of Client and Community Services. She now serves as the organization’s Assistant Director of Legal Programs, where she continues to assist clients who are experiencing direct and collateral consequences of their involvement in the criminal justice system.
I had never really thought about becoming a lawyer… My son, he was getting in and out of trouble—marijuana related—that landed him in courtrooms. I would sit there and just watch line after line of black young men, brown young men, without an attorney. It was so apparent that our legal system is lopsided. So… at the age of 54, I decided to go to law school.
Cynthia Cornelius /
Equal Justice Works Fellow
Host: First Defense Legal Aid
Host: Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc.
Sponsor: Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation
Host: California Appellate Project San Francisco
Sponsor: Fenwick & West LLP
Host: National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
Sponsor: Individual Donors, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP