Sarah Hill Colwell

  • Hosted by Legal Aid of North Carolina
  • Sponsored by AmeriCorps, Equal Justice Works
  • Service location Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Law school University of North Carolina School of Law
  • Issue area Civil Rights/Civil Liberties, Housing/Homelessness, Other Area
  • Fellowship class year 2014
  • Program AmeriCorps Fellows Program

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

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