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Breaking Barriers workshop helps people ‘get back to their lives’

10/22/2017 6:00 AM |

A restorative justice program dedicated to getting community members into careers despite past convictions has made its way to Riverside.

Last Thursday, The Butterfly Effect Project and Riverside Rediscovered hosted a workshop called Breaking Barriers, a pro bono law project through Touro Law School. The program assists clients in reviewing and cleaning up their report of arrest and prosecution, or RAP, sheets to allow them to apply for certificates that could help them land better jobs.

Workshop participants were also given information about a new state law that allows qualified individuals to seal nonviolent criminal convictions.

“It’s important for people to get back to their lives,” attorney Elizabeth Justesen, community outreach director for the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County said before the workshop.

Ms. Justesen, who also has a degree in social work, supervises volunteer Touro Law students who work with the clients and determine if they are eligible for various certificates, such as a certificate of good conduct, which helps reduce legal barriers to employment, voting and housing.

“Making a poor decision or having a series of poor judgments — especially when you’re afflicted by mental health or substance abuse — should not be defining moments in our lives,” Ms. Justesen said. “These types of programs are really meant to allow people to become whatever they want to become in society.”

Tijuana Fulford, founder of The Butterfly Effect Project, said the Breaking Barriers program can help those with past convictions get a “self-esteem boost” after living, in some cases for decades, with a RAP sheet that reflects who they were at a different point in their lives.

“I don’t understand what makes people do what they do, but I do know that my job is not to condemn,” she said.

The goal is to see the community flourish and put people to work, Ms. Fulford said. The program could help someone obtain a dream career, not just a job, she said.

The volunteers law students also work on conviction sealing motions for clients, Ms. Justesen said.

A provision of New York State’s “Raise the Age” legislation, which took effect Oct. 7, allows individuals who have committed no crimes in last 10 years to request that previous nonviolent in-state convictions be sealed, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced earlier this month. Those who are eligible can petition to seal up to two misdemeanor convictions, one misdemeanor and one felony convictions or one felony conviction.

“Law-abiding New Yorkers should not be forever branded with the stigma of a non-violent criminal conviction when they have turned their lives around,” Mr. Cuomo said in statement earlier this month. “This provision of the landmark Raise the Age law will help eligible people of all ages turn the page and increase public safety by helping to end the vicious cycle of recidivism once and for all.”

This provision excludes the sealing of convictions for sex crimes or any offense requiring registration as a sex offender, child pornography, murder, manslaughter and other homicide charges, some conspiracy charges and any Class A or violent felony.

Another Breaking Barriers remedy includes conditional sealing, in which individuals with certain drug or criminal convictions who participated in a court-sanctioned diversion program can file motions to seal their cases.

“Myself and the Legal Aid Society feel we have an ethical and moral obligation to educate people about the court systems, encourage them to vote, encourage them to get involved,” Ms. Justesen said. She said she asks that potential clients who reach out to the program be patient until the all-volunteer program gets in touch with them.

Angela Huneault, assistant community liaison for Riverside Rediscovered, said last Thursday that she wants to see lives change through the program.

“I want to see people have hope that their future is not their past,” she said.

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