Community

What They're Thinking: Clinic provides legal help to those with criminal records

Flags fly at half-staff next to the World War II memorial at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown, Iowa, on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. The facility is the fifth largest with 500 beds out of the 156 similar facilities across the country. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Flags fly at half-staff next to the World War II memorial at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown, Iowa, on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. The facility is the fifth largest with 500 beds out of the 156 similar facilities across the country. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The Linn County Board of Supervisors is hosting a resource clinic this month to help people overcome barriers stemming from a criminal record when looking for employment and housing.

The county is working with Iowa Legal Aid, the city of Cedar Rapids and other agencies to provide a variety of services, including information on housing, employment, financial planning and other related areas, to eligible clients Sept. 22.

Alex Kornya, a staff attorney with Iowa Legal Aid in Des Moines and Linn County Supervisor Stacy Walker provide more details of the Expungement and Employment Resource Barriers Clinic.   

Q: What is the purpose of the clinic?

A: (Kornya) To help people involved with the criminal justice system to use civil law to rise above their record and obtain access to housing, employment and educational opportunity. The initial project was focused on racial justice, and focuses on cities in Iowa with the highest statistical disparities for African Americans in unemployment, poverty and incarceration rates — specifically Davenport, Dubuque, Des Moines and Waterloo.

This will be Iowa Legal Aid’s 11th clinic in just over a year, but thanks to the support of Linn County and the city of Cedar Rapids, will be the first ever held in Cedar Rapids.

Q: Didn’t you get the board involved because of your work with the Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Task Force?  

A: (Walker) In the Economic Opportunities subcommittee of the task force, we talked quite a bit about removing barriers to employment for individuals in our community who have the desire to work. We knew that the initial screening process that checked for criminal history was a major issue. There have been several campaigns around the state and country that have called for “banning the box,” to remove the question on job applications that asks about past criminal history. Linn County has banned the box for individuals seeking to work with our government.

If we can make these clinics happen more regularly, continue to educate our partners in corporate America, I think we’ll be able to tap into a skilled and willing workforce right here in our community.  

Q: What types of legal issues can be addressed during this clinic?

A: (Kornya) The major legal issues addressed include, but are not limited to, expungement and record clearance, court debt, driver’s license and registration issues, and denials of housing, employment or education due to background checks. While not everyone will be able to get their cases expunged, due to limitations in the law, everyone will get assistance with some aspect of their situation that will make their lives better.

Criminal justice involvement can make it almost impossible to find a job or housing. The mere fact that someone has a criminal record can often lead employers or landlords to discard that person’s application out of hand, often without considering how old the case is or the individual circumstances of the person’s situation.

Unmanageable court debt — fines and fees owed for involvement in a criminal case — can make it impossible to pay rent, utilities or other critical bills. Cutting off access to transportation by suspending licenses and registration renewals often means that the person has even less capacity to pay the debt than before.

Q: Individuals will also receive help for employment, housing, financial planning and other issues?

A: (Walker) We have reached out to several community partners who plan to have representatives at this clinic. The list below is not exhaustive, but represents a cross-section of organizations that will participate: Horizons Family Services, financial planning and transportation; LIFTS, transportation; Area Substance Abuse Council, rehabilitation; Affordable Housing Network, housing; and Linn County Veterans Affairs. In addition, we’ll receive help from the League of Women Voters and other groups interested in helping individuals apply to have their voting rights restored.

Q: How does this clinic help the local economy as a whole?

A: (Walker) Iowa has a shortage of workers, that is a fact. If we want to continue growing our local economy, we must first meet this challenge. Approximately 5,000 women and men are released from Iowa prisons each year, according to United Way statistics. With proper training, education and supportive services, these individuals could fill some of those vacancies. When we put people to work, we lessen the burden on our taxpayer-funded social services programs and in turn, we allow families to fully participate in our local economy.

A: (Kornya) Despite this historical leadership on racial justice issues, Iowa today is among the worst states in the nation for racial disparities. In 2015, African Americans made up 3.1 percent of Iowa’s population, yet comprised 25.8 percent of Iowa’s prison population. The same year, the poverty rate for Iowa’s African Americans was 36.5 percent, the third-highest in the nation, and the unemployment rate was 14.8 percent, the highest in the nation. A 2010 survey of employers conducted by Iowa Workforce Development showed that out of 570 respondents, only 33 percent had ever hired an ex-offender.”

Pre-registration is required for the clinic. The deadline is Sept. 14. Those interested can call (515) 243-1193, or go to the Linn County website and fill out the form. There is no cost to attend.

After the clinic, Iowa Legal Aid staff attorneys also will review the files of those who attended to see whether any of the cases need additional support and may extend service beyond the clinic.  

Those pre-registered will receive a time to attend the clinic at the Linn County Community Services Building, 1240 26th Ave. Court SW in Cedar Rapids.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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