In her work with the Reentry Justice Project at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, current Fellow Satcha Robinson helps people who have been involved with the criminal justice system overcome the obstacles they face.
Robin Davidson: Welcome to Skadcast. I'm Robin Davidson, and today I am speaking with Satcha Robinson of the Skadden Fellows Class of 2018. Thanks for joining us on the podcast.
Satcha Robinson: Glad to be here.
Robin Davidson: You are doing currently your fellowship. It's the Reentry Justice Project at Legal Aid in Washington D.C. Can you describe your project for us?
Satcha Robinson: My project focuses on the collateral consequences that individuals experience. So what are the barriers [for] people who have had involvement with the criminal justice system, and how that is impacting their lives. And so what that looks like for my clientele: people have difficulty accessing and maintaining housing, public benefits, employment; and we affirmatively will assist people with sealing their criminal records.
Robin Davidson: What led you to pursue a fellowship in that particular area of law?
Satcha Robinson: Looking at my own personal and professional experience before law school and during law school, I always had an interest in racial and economic justice, and this issue really merges and melds those two issues. So a few examples are illustrative. I interned at the Department of Education in the Office for Civil Rights, and during that [time] we were examining complaints that discipline in schools was being meted out in terms of race. And so not surprisingly that was accurate. Students of color were being disciplined more severely and more often. That pattern continues into their adult lives. And so in school they're being disciplined more often. A lot of times that leads to involvement with school police officers, and then in their adult lives they'll have more involvement with the criminal justice system often.
In addition to that experience, I interned at the Legal Aid Society, where I am now, in the housing unit, and there was a case that was in the news at that time in D.C. where a woman was being evicted on the grounds that her son had committed suicide using an unregistered firearm. And so the lack of dignity that that individual is not only grieving the loss of their child, but then has to go through this legal battle of losing their housing because of this devastating event that happened in their life.
My work currently touches upon those types of areas. I'm helping people who are facing eviction based on their own actions or the actions of others that are alleged to be criminal in nature. There are so many problems that people experience when they come into contact with the criminal justice system aside from just the punishment that they might receive if they're convicted.
Robin Davidson: Let's stick with some of the specifics from your current project. Are you able to give a couple of examples of some of the direct representation work?
Satcha Robinson: Yes definitely. And my project, I did not mention at the outset, is a holistic project. So when people are coming in, they are experiencing a lot of issues surrounding their criminal history, and I am able to help and our organization is able to help with essentially all civil legal aspects and problems that they are facing.
But for example I had a client who was incarcerated for approximately 25 to 30 years. They were incarcerated when they were 14 years old. They're coming out, and they didn't receive adequate physical health treatment, mental health treatment while they were incarcerated. And now they are trying to get public benefits. They're trying to get social security and prove that they're disabled. The process of showing that you are disabled is extremely difficult. A lot of wrong decisions are made, and it takes a long time to go through that. And so we were able to represent him at his hearing before an administrative law judge at the Social Security Administration to try and help him access those public benefits that he desperately needs coming out not able to work, and part of that is due to mental and physical healthcare in the prison system.
Another example is someone who has come in and they have had, you know, sometimes it's a few, sometimes it's just one singular incident — a conviction — in their life. Might have been years and years and years ago, and they are not able to access subsidized housing. They apply. They are on the waitlist for several years, and then by the time they get to the top they find out that a drug conviction from the '90s or a drug conviction from the '80s stops them from being able to get housing where it's $150 a month or it's income-based. And so these are things that people desperately need: housing, a form of support — whether that's being able to work or to access critical public benefits. We try and are able to help a lot of people just gain those basic living needs.
I love talking about clients. I think that each client's story is empowering and frustrating all at the same time. If I was picking one, I think this is emblematic of a lot of the problems that my clients are facing. And so a man came in. He had a drug conviction from 1987 or so, 1980s. You know, 30 years have passed. He's gotten married. Had children. He's helping support his adult children and grandchild with a disability. He has been employed in a lot of different ways; however, even with all those efforts he's had to work multiple jobs to be able to make ends meet because he couldn't get higher paying jobs because of his background, because of that conviction. And so he's had to work harder at every step of the way, and even still in the jobs that he was working he's facing harassment from his co-workers and superiors. He's not able to be promoted. This is someone who 30 years has passed, one single incident from when they were 20 years old is really impacting their ability to provide for their family. They describe themselves as a workaholic because they had to be. Rather than turning to something that maybe was illegal and would give them more money at that time, instead they've worked multiple jobs, not been able to spend as much time with their family, and they're still being punished. At what point does it end? Thirty years, and you just have to work so much harder to be able to just barely make ends meet.
We see a lot of clients who I feel like they fall into two categories. Either they have had lots of interactions with the criminal justice system: arrests, convictions, perhaps there were untreated substance issues or untreated mental health issues. And then something changes, they've gone a few years without having any sort of interaction, and now they're looking for help accessing and maintaining jobs, housing, employment. There are those cases, and then also there are some people who have just one or two incidents from many years ago. And then, now it's hindering them in some way. They're adults, they made a mistake at one point in their lives, and now they're still being penalized.
Robin Davidson: Talk a little bit about some of the broader advocacy work you do.
Satcha Robinson: Some of the hardest part of my job is that there are so many people that really the law just isn’t designed to help them. In D.C., for example, to get your record sealed, you can only seal one conviction, the most recent one. If you have a felony you can't seal anything, and still you have to wait anywhere from two to eight years. Even for a nonconviction up to two years you would have to wait.
Robin Davidson: Even for a nonconviction.
Satcha Robinson: A nonconviction, two years. That's enough time someone can lose their job. That might be showing up and impacting their ability to, you know, go about their lives and do other things. You know really there are so many individuals who come in, and we have to tell them unfortunately there is just no relief for you in this situation. And so the D.C. counsel has introduced legislation in January of this year to make significant improvements to the law at least in terms of record sealing. And so we are involved in this process and will continue to be involved in this process to improve the law. But right now it's looking like we might be able to get automatic expungement rather than record sealing, and the waiting times would be much, much shorter.
I am fortunate that my organization — and you know, part of my project involves the systemic reform to be able to help even more people. Because right now the number of people who know about the ability to seal their record and the number of people … So the number of people who are eligible and the number of people who actually take steps to do that — it's about 17% of people who are eligible actually go forward and apply to have their records sealed. That gap is quite significant. It's often called the second-chance gap. And so, if we could get it where it's automatically done, they don't have to do anything except in limited cases that would be a huge improvement for 10% of the population.
Our advocacy efforts are aimed at D.C. law and the D.C. counsel and D.C. agencies. That being said, we do oftentimes endorse different federal bills. I think that there will be some changes coming, proposed legislation, to improve some of the screening criteria for people who are applying to federally subsidized housing, and so although this is kind of in the works I think that our organization has gotten involved in efforts similar to this in the past and so perhaps we will be involved in efforts like this in the future.
Robin Davidson: When you think about the way the system works currently, and you think about the way it should work, what do you see happening down the line? And beyond what you see happening, what should happen?
Satcha Robinson: At times this work can be challenging because I'm looking at one aspect of the client's life. You know, they've had some interaction with the criminal justice system. Now they're trying to do X, Y, Z. But really there are so many issues tangled up in that. So, you know, problems with funding of education and access to treatment and mental health treatment and substance abuse problems and family life and over-policing of neighborhoods. I mean there's just … at times you can think I'm only doing … I'm only looking at one very small issue of the problem and how am I going to fix everything? There's so many things that go wrong. So I feel fortunate that I'm one of many Skadden Fellows who are doing work on a lot of different issues. And so hopefully bit by bit everyone's fixing different parts of the problem and together it will improve.
But in terms of my issue area, really the stigma associated with having an arrest or criminal conviction needs to end. I think there needs to be a holistic view of what happened then, what was going on in that person's life, and where are they now. Does that still reflect where they are now. Would they be a danger to the community if it's involving landlord-tenant relationships? Would they be able to perform the job if it's in the employment context? Really there needs to be a holistic view of someone and recognize that was one point in their life. And it's not reflective of what [is] going on in their life at that time, and could they perform looking at the merit of that individual at that time and not making a decision based on one point.
Robin Davidson: Well thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. It's been a great conversation.
Satcha Robinson: Thank you for having me.