What is a “reentry lawyer”?

We hope everyone had a restful Thanksgiving! We took the holiday weekend to recharge and we are now on a week-long trip in Southern California to visit reentry and legal services organizations—meeting with reentry lawyers, practitioners, and formerly incarcerated advocates in Los Angeles & San Diego.

Despite being in our home state of California, the vast geographical landscape means that the work in Northern California and Southern California is quite distinct. While we encounter similar state laws and state actors in our efforts, the local communities and stakeholders are diverse throughout the state. For example, in L.A. yesterday, we had the incredible privilege of meeting with 5 lawyers at 3 different organizations who ALL do reentry legal services work. We say incredible because of the high caliber of work these lawyers perform for formerly incarcerated clients, but also incredible because, generally, it is hard to find 5 people across the COUNTRY who are doing reentry legal services work, let alone in one place in one day. Very inspiring that people are actually doing some of this important work!

Reentry legal services actually means many different things. The civil barriers that people face are so vast that, when it comes down to it, “reentry law” covers the gamut of family law and family reunification, licensing appeals, credit issues, housing, federal and state benefits, expungement, immigration, and employment discrimination. Another reason reentry legal services differ from one organization to another is that reentry is not a single point in time—it is a continuum in a person’s life. The issues someone faces one year before release, the day he or she walks out the gate, one week or one month post-release, and then well into years of reentry are constantly evolving. The legal barriers to successful reentry do not end after 5 years of living in the community nor do they begin right when someone walks out the gate.

It was, therefore, really interesting to meet with reentry attorneys who have been practicing in this area, some for many years. We were able to ask them why they have chosen to focus on certain client populations and certain areas of the law over others. Some of these choices are naturally made by organizations and individual attorneys who are responding to the needs of particular communities and are informed by those needs. Two groups, a New Way of Life and the LAW Project of Los Angeles have a greater focus on expungement work (clearing people’s records) with a mission of getting people back to work. These clients tend to be further along in reentry. Another group, the Pepperdine/ Union Rescue Mission Legal Aid Clinic has more of a focus on family reunification, credit, benefits, housing, and homelessness. These clients tend to be newly released.

We obviously cannot cover all of the areas of reentry law nor reach all of the people exiting prison and jail in the state of California. For our first year of practice, as we incubate this work in the Bay Area, one of the biggest questions we are trying to answer is where we will start our work—that is, where along the reentry continuum we will focus our legal advocacy and what areas of law we will practice to be most responsive to the needs of clients. While we haven’t answered the latter question as fully (what exact services we will provide), we know that we want to focus on newly released clients, beginning our work with them pre-release, providing a bridge of services from prison to community, and into the first few years of reentry. We have chosen to focus on newly-released prisoners because this is where we see a huge gap. There is no organization in the Bay Area solely focused on reentry legal services for men and women at this earliest stage of reentry, and we have heard time and time again from formerly incarcerated people advising us in our work that there are huge legal and social service needs in this early stage of reentry not being met.

This trip to LA and yesterday’s meetings with five committed attorneys at the three organizations helped us to better understand the various areas of reentry law that we can practice and the nuts and bolts of doing this work. While we aren’t ready to announce exactly what we are choosing to focus on (and still need to do more research, focus groups, etc.), we feel that our service model is becoming clearer, and that something really amazing will come of all of our explorations and planning.

—The R&R Team

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