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MJ Smith

The Project

Through a medical-legal partnership between the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s Community Violence Intervention Program, MJ (they/them/theirs) will provide civil legal help to survivors of gun violence and collaborate on systemic advocacy efforts with clients and colleagues.

Gun violence negatively impacts hundreds of Washington D.C. residents every year. 81% of gun violence survivors receiving services from MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s Community Violence Intervention Program have at least one unmet civil legal need. Many survivors do not seek legal help due to distrust of lawyers and the legal system. Survivors of gun violence are at risk for reinjury and retaliatory violence when their civil legal needs go unmet.

Fellowship Plans

Through one of the first medical-legal partnerships in the country with a hospital-based violence intervention program, MJ and their colleagues from the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia will promote the recovery and stability of gun violence survivors through trauma-informed civil legal services and systemic advocacy. Areas of civil legal help will include public benefits support, criminal record expungement, consumer debt relief, and family and housing law matters. Systemic advocacy will address chronic barriers to stability faced by gun violence survivors, such as food and income security, homelessness, access to healthcare, and the collateral consequences of over-policing and over criminalization.

Media

Greenberg Traurig Names its 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellows

Equal Justice Works Introduces 2022 Class of Fellows

I want to be part of efforts to address community violence through compassion and harm reduction rather than criminalization and incarceration.

MJ Smith /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

In 2008, the U.S. Veterans Administration estimated there are over 400,000 veterans residing in our twelve-county Central Florida region. With over 60,000 at or below the federal poverty line, Shelly reached out to veterans by providing free legal assistance and access to justice. Additionally, Shelly provided assistance on matters including VA benefits assistance, foreclosure prevention and bankruptcy. Other issues to be addressed include consumer issues, wills, housing issues, family law matters and re-employment issues.

The Project

My project focus is Veterans advocacy. The main objective is to assist our veterans in achieving and maintaining greater independence and self-sufficiency. Our combined project will include training and assistance to veterans with military discharge upgrades, landlord/tenant and unemployment compensation issues, naturalization, and sealing/expungement of a criminal record. We will also conduct training on Landlord/Tenant law for VA personnel who administer housing vouchers for veterans.

The Inspiration

The Project

EOLC AmeriCorps Fellows will provide collaborative and hollistic legal assistance to Alameda County residents who have had contact with the criminal justice system, and who are trying to overcome barriers to employment. EOLC AmeriCorps Fellows will help clients obtain all available criminal records remedies. Through collaborative outreach, cross-practice referrals, and weekly intake clinics, Fellows will screen clients for eligibility for court-based remedies, provide self-help assistance, and conduct “triage” for clients in need of full representation in court proceedings.

This project is important because the need for assistance does not end after involvement with the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, after contact with the criminal justice system there are many barriers clients face, including barriers to finding and receiving employment opportunities. It is important to have supporters in place to assist people in these areas in order to promote community and economic development.

This project is a criminal record remedy for people in Alameda County, California who face barriers to employment following involvement in the criminal justice system.

Fellowship Highlights

Alexia Cristina Mayorga provided direct legal representation and assistance to low income clients throughout Alameda County who are looking for criminal record remedies. This remedy created employment opportunities for these clients.

The Project

Sarah provided statewide legal assistance to economically disadvantaged individuals isolated from gainful employment by their criminal records in order to restore employment opportunities and other resources essential to productive citizenship.

This project is important on both an individual and a societal level. To each client who is able to have their record expunged, this project acts as an acknowledging force, ensuring them that society knows they are more than their record, and as hope for and a step toward increased stability through consistent gainful employment and housing. On a macro level, it works to challenge society’s marginalization of those with justice involvement. It is a reminder that one’s punishment for breaking the law is complete upon the fulfillment of a sentence or payment of a fine and that an individual should not carry a permanent scarlet letter as a result of their past decisions. This project is also important because it works to break a cycle that has disproportionately affected minority communities in North Carolina and has impeded the growth and prosperity of those communities.

In 2014, 1.6 million North Carolinians—or 1 in 5 adults—have criminal records. These records consist of misdemeanor and felony convictions as well as charges that were dismissed or otherwise disposed without conviction. The breadth of individuals with criminal records is particularly broad in North Carolina, exacerbated by the nation’s lowest maximum age of juvenile jurisdiction (age 15) and the unique ability of private citizens to initiate a range of criminal charges against one another without the involvement of law enforcement officers. In our electronic age, these criminal records serve as modern-day scarlet letters, giving rise to civil disabilities and discriminatory practices that isolate individuals from employment opportunities and other resources essential to productive citizenship. Often, these “collateral consequences” of criminal records have a more destructive impact on individuals’ lives than their criminal punishments.

Legal Aid of North Carolina (“LANC”) has a long history of providing civil legal services to low-income individuals in communities across North Carolina. In providing a traditional array of no-cost legal services to low-income individuals, LANC attorneys came to recognize barriers to opportunity based on criminal records as an increasingly central component of poverty within the communities they serve, particularly communities of color. For example, in LANC’s work representing victims of domestic violence, LANC provides clients with the legal protections to escape their abusers, but a significant portion of these clients are deprived of opportunities for gainful employment and affordable housing based on criminal records that are byproducts of their abuse. Similarly, in LANC’s support for children in the public school system, attorneys see misbehaviors traditionally resolved in principals’ offices now adjudicated in court rooms—demerits and detention replaced with criminal records. Coupled with North Carolina’s exceptionally low maximum age of juvenile jurisdiction, this increased policing of schools results in thousands of 16- and 17-year olds being charged as adults and straddled with criminal records that will significantly limit their access to gainful employment for decades to come.

Fellowship Highlights

In Sarah’s first two months will be focused on gaining an understanding of the law surrounding expunctions and other barriers to employment such as certificates of relief, occupational licensing, and driver’s license restoration, as well as the various mechanisms and relationships already in place between Legal Aid of NC and different organizations and partners across the state. Sarah hosted multiple clinics across the state between September and early-November, working one-on-one with clients to determine eligibility for relief and subsequently filing any requisite petitions.

From November onward, Sarah traveled the state to train lawyers so that they too will come to understand the significance of this work and will be trained to take cases of their own. This will help to build a network of pro bono attorneys across the state that will be able to take cases by referral.

Sarah developed direct referral relationships with a variety of organizations ranging from public defender and district attorney offices to human trafficking, disability rights, and homeless support organizations to veteran’s groups. These will be sustainable and ongoing relationships that will direct those in need of legal assistance to our office.

Finally, Sarah started special projects that will expand the scope of our assistance beyond expunctions and into areas such as certificates of relief and occupational licensing.

Sarah provided expert assistance, legal toolkits, and other resources to each of LANC’s 20 local field offices in order to establish statewide access to reentry-focused civil legal services.

Additionally, Sarah developed and staffed direct referral partnerships with agencies providing job-skills and job-placement services to individuals with criminal records.

Finally, Sarah piloted the development and delivery of additional reentry-focused civil legal services, including driver’s license restoration, occupational licensing appeals, and Title VII employment discrimination claims.

Specifically, during her Fellowship, Sarah:

  • Reached 250 economically disadvantaged individuals with some type of legal services
  • Prepared and submitted legal cases to the relevant court or agency for at least 125 economically disadvantaged people
  • Helped 75 individuals removed a legal barrier to employment
  • 25 individuals secured a job following the removal of a barrier to employment

I believe that every person's needs deserve to be recognized through unobstructed access to justice. I aim to be the microphone and supporter that makes those needs heard..

Sarah Hill Colwell /
Equal Justice Works Fellow