Removing barriers for people returning from incarceration

Among the barriers faced by Philadelphia citizens returning from incarceration, unresolved traffic fines and driver’s license suspensions loom large.  Unless they’re addressed, these problems can impair the person’s ability to earn a living; and, because the underlying offenses typically date back many years, resolving them can be complicated.

Enter Justice Lab students Aaron Bindman, Zane Johnson, and Dennie Zastrow, who worked with their client, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, to develop solutions.  The team interviewed stakeholders in Philadelphia, surveyed returning citizens, and researched and spoke with individuals in other jurisdictions.  Their report, “Proposed solutions for Improving the Experience of Returning Citizens with the Philadelphia Traffic Division,” contains a number of common-sense proposals, including converting outstanding fines to time served or to community service; simplifying Traffic Division materials, and making sure that they include understandable information about the availability of payment plans for traffic fines; educating returning citizens on how to navigate the Traffic Division process; and more.

Aaron reflected on his work on the project: “It was not until we started talking to returning citizens that we began to understand the magnitude of these problems and the impact our work could have. Every potential employer we encountered required a non-suspended driver’s license, no matter the job. Impossible-to-pay traffic fines and resulting license suspensions were another unnecessary barrier to those individuals returning to society. Our Justice Lab project offers several solutions that could help returning citizens avoid being punished over and over again.”

Helping unrepresented litigants navigate the courts


There was a time when most people who went to court over landlord-tenant problems, consumer disputes, child custody, and other such matters were accompanied by lawyers.  But that time is long gone; now, because of the shortage of even moderately-priced legal services, most Americans must represent themselves in these “routine” — but vitally important — matters.

But representing oneself is no picnic for a layperson, given the almost impenetrable complexity of legal rules and procedures. Students from the Sheller Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic waded into this problem this year, working with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to find ways of making justice more accessible to pro se litigants.

Law student Madeline Rathey was on the team, focusing on the area of appeals from eviction orders.  “It was eye-opening, and frustrating, to try to figure out how to navigate the system, and then to simplify it for pro se folks,” she says.

Despite the frustrations, Madeline feels positively about documents that she and her colleagues drafted – including a much simplified form for people seeking waivers of court fees, and clearer information on how to get an eviction stayed pending appeal.  The team also recommended some changes to court procedure, such as elimination of the requirement that litigants submit a formal memorandum with every motion (a near-impossibility for pro se folks).  And, Madeline notes, an even bigger step forward would be the creation of a Help Desk at the court’s filing office – since most people sooner or later need some hands-on help, not just forms and instructions.

Madeline’s work on these problems won’t end here.  She graduated this spring, and her next stop is a position with Mid-Penn Legal Services in Reading, representing low-income clients in landlord/tenant cases.

A legal incubator for Philadelphia?

Legal “incubators” help young lawyers gain the practical skills they need in order to set up moderately-priced law practices in local communities.  Thus, incubators serve a dual purpose:  they expand career options for law graduates, while also supporting the creation of affordable services for people of low and moderate incomes (who, studies show, are increasingly unable to access legal help).

The first incubator opened in 2007 at CUNY Law School.  Now, there are over fifty — in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, as well as dozens of other locations around the country.  In an issue brief, “A Legal Incubator for Philadelphia?,” Temple law student Stephen Fox examines the incubator movement, and argues that the time has come to consider establishing an incubator here.

Temple students offer strategies for addressing unsafe, unhealthy housing

Serious code violations — leaking roofs, broken windows, rodents, non-functioning heaters, lead paint, exposed wiring, and other unsafe conditions — are common in rental units across Philadelphia, according to Strategies to Address Unsafe and Unhealthy Housing in Philadelphia, a new report authored by Temple law students.   But, the report says, Philadelphia’s new city administration could make strategic changes that would create healthier and safer housing.

The report, prepared under the supervision of Nan Feyler, Visiting Professor of Law and the City’s former Deputy Commissioner for Public Health Programs, provides detailed recommendations for making sure that all landlords have up-to-date rental licenses; strengthening enforcement of the property maintenance code; taking a proactive approach to inspections, rather than waiting for formal complaints; and devoting more funds to the Department of Licensing & Inspections.

The report also describes effective approaches taken by Oakland, Boston, Rochester, and other cities with similar health and safety problems.  The students presented their report in a meeting with City officials on April 20th.

Immigrant families seek to join hearing on Berks Detention Center

A facility that was licensed (until recently) as a “child day treatment and residential facility” – but that actually operates as a jail, keeping families locked up and punishing them if they try to leave.  Children confined with adults other than their parents.   Inadequate medical care.   And an overall pattern, according to an Inquirer editorial, of “deplorable treatment.”

These are among conditions at the Berks County Residential Center, which houses immigrant families detained by the federal government.  Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) revoked the facility’s license, but the county appealed and is continuing to operate the facility.

Now, the Sheller Center and its partners have filed a petition on behalf of some of the detained parents and children, asking to be heard when the appeal is considered.   “Our petition is an important symbol of the injustices faced by these detained families. It is essential that the voices and experiences of detained children and families be a part of the licensing appeal related to the Detention Center,” said Rhiannon DiClemente, a Temple 3L.

For more information, read the Petition to Intervene and recent news coverage.

UPDATE:   On April 5, the Administrative Law Judge overseeing the appeal denied our Petition to Intervene, on the ground that the families’ interest in the litigation “is adequately represented by the Department [of Human Services].”  We’re thinking about next steps.

Helping clients who have experienced trauma

Working with clients who have experienced trauma requires special skills and strategies — some of which are quite different from conventional approaches to interviewing and representation.  A crowd of faculty and students got a terrific introduction to the subject from psychologist Dr. Judith Eidelson, whose March 8th lecture was arranged by the student Family Law Society and cosponsored by the Temple Legal Aid Office, the Sheller Center for Social Justice, the Temple Advocacy Program, the Elder Law Clinic and family law professors Theresa Glennon and Rachel Rebouche.   You can view Dr. Eidelson’s PowerPoint presentation here.

Protecting children from lead exposure

Most Philadelphia homes were built before the use of lead-based paint was restricted; as a result, thousands of Philly children suffer from elevated lead levels.   In a discussion on WHYY’s “Radio Times”, Prof. Nan Feyler, a Sheller Center Affiliated Faculty Member, called for more aggressive enforcement of codes requiring remediation of lead-paint problems.  She and several students are exploring code-enforcement problems this semester.

Students looking into “Live Stop”

Students in the Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic are studying the Philadelphia Police Department’s “Live Stop” program, which authorizes police to tow a vehicle if, during a traffic stop, the driver cannot produce a current license or registration.  An Inquirer article (“Philly cops leave undocumented woman, kids in street, take car”) illustrates some of the problems that can result.  Working with New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, the Center is examining the impact of the law and comparing Philadelphia’s approach with that of other cities.

Tax clinic at the Sheller Center

As February approaches, plans are again underway for the Center’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) clinic.  Managed by Ceiba, a community organization, the clinic runs from February to mid-April, and is staffed in part by Temple Law student volunteers trained by Professor Alice Abreu (a member of the Center’s Affiliated Faculty).

Last year, the clinic prepared 187 returns, resulting in approximately $219,535 in state and federal refunds to local families.

The clinic also offers a terrific experience for law students.  Rachel Sellers, a second-year student, said this:  “VITA is an incredible opportunity to experience the tensions between tax policy and the consequences to real taxpayers. I genuinely looked forward to my Mondays at VITA as I met inspiring people and helped them to navigate the tax process. It is absolutely an eye-opening and worthwhile experience and I encourage everyone to volunteer!”

For more information, contact the Center or call Ceiba at 215.634.7245.