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Partner Spotlight: Misdemeanor Expungement Support for Survivors


Learn about a project dedicated to helping survivors of domestic violence clear misdemeanor convictions from their records.

 

Outside the world of advocacy and shelter programs like The Friendship Center, our advocates have probably all had the experience of being thanked when they describe the work they do. In those same conversations, they’ve likely also gone on to clarify that our clients are the ones who do the most difficult and commendable work.


To be clear, agencies like ours are significant—our advocates ensure that nobody has to walk alone on their journey to a life free from violence and abuse, and we’ve seen how life-changing that support can be. But none of what we do would be possible without the courage, strength, and resolve of survivors. And there’s no way we could provide the level of support that we do without the knowledge and commitment of partners throughout our tri-county region and beyond. One of those indispensable partners is Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA), a nonprofit that provides civil legal services for low-income Montanans in all 56 counties.


Besides having multiple staff attorneys dedicated to representing domestic violence survivors and a corps of pro bono attorneys that can help some of our clients experiencing other victimizations, MLSA currently has a project dedicated to helping survivors expunge misdemeanor convictions from their records. To talk about this project and why a cleared record can be such a game-changer for a survivor in establishing safety and independence, we invited MLSA Skadden Fellow Amy Reavis to respond to a short Q&A. Amy shares how her previous work at an advocacy program inspired her to pursue a law career. She also discusses the fellowship project goals for building resources to help survivors petitioning for expungement, and support the pro bono attorneys interested in representing them.

 

We learned about your Skadden Fellowship earlier this spring when some of your MLSA colleagues gave our staff a presentation on their services. The general services presentation is something they do periodically to keep us informed about the many ways they can assist our clients, but on this most recent visit, they highlighted a few special projects they currently have funding and staff dedicated to, and your fellowship is one of those! To get us started, can you describe the project?


AR: My fellowship project advocates for survivors of domestic violence who have criminal records. The Montana Legislature recently passed a law that allows people to expunge (clear) misdemeanor convictions from their records. My two-year project brings together my background working with survivors and this new expungement law. The project primarily focuses on misdemeanor expungement representation, but also allows flexibility for me to litigate in other areas, such as housing, employment, and family law, to achieve thriving futures for survivors.


For folks who may not realize the barriers a criminal record can present, what’s the impact a misdemeanor expungement can have for someone who’s trying to reclaim/rebuild their life after fleeing violence?


AR: The criminal system’s language of “perpetrator” and “victim” can create a false binary. Many survivors of domestic violence have criminal records of their own and many people facing the criminal system as a defendant have survived violence themselves. Survivors may have assault convictions from actions they took to protect themselves, convictions relating to substance use they engaged in to cope with trauma, convictions from actions their partner coerced them into, and convictions relating to poverty or disability.


Even after someone has completed the sentence for a conviction—such as jail time, community service, or payment of fines—that conviction continues to exist on their criminal record. Every time they apply for an apartment, job, or professional license, the conviction pops up on their background check. Expunging a record allows for a clean slate and an increased likelihood of landing a job (especially a better paying one) and being accepted as a tenant. For survivors, income and housing are cornerstones of independence and healing. A clean record facilitates their path towards a stable income and a safe home.


Given this is a two-year fellowship, can you talk about the long-term goals you have for helping more survivors and attorneys learn about the expungement process?


AR: One goal of my fellowship is to create free fill-in-the-blank forms for self-represented litigants to petition for expungement and to publish the forms and accompanying instructions on MLSA’s Montana Law Help website. I also plan to create materials for pro bono attorneys on expungement representation. I’ve already had the opportunity to train attorneys in the First Judicial District on expungement and look forward to continuing to facilitate trainings throughout my fellowship.


Something that stands out to us about your trajectory is that before you pursued a law career, you managed a domestic violence advocacy program. A lot of our advocates can’t imagine doing anything else once they’ve started working with survivors—they love it that much. Was that true for you too?


AR: I worked at an advocacy program very similar to The Friendship Center for five years before going to law school. Often when I told people that I worked as a domestic violence advocate, they would respond, “That’s so sad, I don’t know how you do it.” This response took me by surprise. I found advocacy to be inspiring and hope-filled work. Yes, the situations we encountered were dire, but the strength and resilience of survivors lit a fire under me. I loved working in the shelter especially. My best days were when someone got the keys to their own apartment. I’m a big advocate for advocates. You all do some of the most practical work in our community to help people with immediate and tangible needs.


When did you know that you wanted to keep working with survivors in a different capacity? Did you go to law school with the vision of eventually doing work similar to what you’re doing now? Or did you have your sights set on a different area of law altogether?


AR: Maybe advocates can relate to this—I went to law school because I got tired of being told I couldn’t give legal advice without a law license. I knew that I wanted to do public interest lawyering relating in some way to women living in poverty. I had the opportunity to continue my work with survivors in law school. I represented survivors in parental rights termination proceedings, and I represented a survivor serving a life sentence in state prison at her parole hearing. This fellowship presented a great opportunity to start my legal career in a related field.


It also stands out that you came back to your home state to clerk after law school. Was it always a goal to come back to Montana?


AR: I’m not sure I appreciated Montana enough growing up here. Perhaps distance really does make the heart grow fonder. I find myself in awe of a place I didn’t really acknowledge before. I’m very thankful to be back. All my siblings and their families are here and I’m a fierce aunt for my nephews and niece. It is my good fortune to be able to give back to a state—first through clerking and now through legal aid—that gave so much to me as a kid through its natural beauty and public schools. (P.S. Go Butte West Elementary Buffaloes, Cardwell Cougs, and Whitehall Trojans!)


Last but not least, in addition to requests and referrals for legal services, it sounds like you’d welcome hearing from any attorneys out there who might be looking for meaningful pro bono work. What would you say to your peers who might be considering this as a way to get more involved in supporting survivors?


AR: Expungement presents a great pro bono opportunity for attorneys. The representation is limited to one petition and possibly one hearing, which makes it easy to fit in with your other work. A successful expungement can be life-changing for the person you represent. Most low-income Montanans with criminal records cannot afford an attorney to help with this issue, leaving it to legal aid and pro bono attorneys. If you are interested in getting involved by representing someone in an expungement pro bono, contact MLSA’s pro bono coordinator, Ellie Webster at ewebster@mtlsa.org.

 

The Friendship Center is just one of many organizations in our community working to ensure everyone is supported with care and dignity. Each month, we highlight some of the fantastic people and organizations we partner and collaborate with in our email newsletter. Sign up to make sure you don't miss a partner spotlight and learn more about some of the services available in our community.


About Skadden Fellowships

Skadden Fellowships like Amy's give law school graduates and outgoing judicial law clerks an opportunity to spend two years working full-time in public interest law. To learn more about this prestigious fellowship, and the latest fellowship cohorts, check out this explainer.

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