It’s not what public defenders normally do: Stop an eviction. Keep a kid in school. Help someone hang on to a job.
But thanks to a pilot project funded by the City of Seattle, three lawyers for the King County Department of Public Defense are working every day on just these kinds of matters: They’re representing public defense clients who are facing the civil consequences of a criminal conviction or arrest – the often unseen upshot of criminal justice involvement that can follow somebody for years.
Lou Manuta, Josh Treybig and Charlie Klein began working as civil legal aid attorneys at DPD a year ago. Already, they’ve helped nearly 800 low-income Seattle residents, most of them facing the collateral consequences of a misdemeanor conviction.
The obstacles their clients face are considerable, and the victories are hard-won. Treybig went to court four times to get one eviction quashed. Still, all three attorneys can cite countless examples where they’ve had an impact, thanks to their experience in civil legal aid combined with the work of a public defender addressing the criminal matter.
Manuta was able to keep someone employed at a grocery store after the employer tried to fire him for an unrelated arrest. Klein worked with a woman who had a housing voucher but couldn’t find a place to live because of a past eviction; he was able to get the eviction notice out of reporting agencies’ records. Treybig recently handled a juvenile case, where a student – charged with a minor crime – faced possible expulsion; the student had a documented disability, and Treybig was able to convince the school district to develop a plan to help the student get back on track.
Their clients are often charged with what Klein called “crimes of poverty” – petty theft, disorderly conduct, driving without a license – incidents that stem from homelessness and profound instability. “We’re giving them a chance to move forward without feeling as though the ground is always giving way beneath their feet,” he said.
Concern about collateral consequences has been mounting, as a growing number of activists, scholars and writers have spotlighted the devastating array of sanctions and disqualifications that can attach to someone for years in the wake of a criminal conviction or in some instances merely an arrest.
The Council of State Governments has identified more than 100 possible collateral consequences for a misdemeanor conviction. Books have been written on the topic, including Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking The New Jim Crow, which looked at the disproportionate impact these consequences have on people of color.
Public defense firms have also recognized the need to address these civil consequences. The Bronx Defenders in New York has become a national leader in the effort, establishing a practice that has become a model for agencies around the country.
Inspired by The Bronx Defenders, Anita Khandelwal, formerly DPD’s policy director and now the department’s interim Public Defender, began working with Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold two years ago to address the issue locally. They developed a two-year pilot project for a legal aid program housed within the Department of Public Defense, and in 2017 Councilmember Herbold was able to get $440,000 in funding to launch the program.
Councilmember Herbold was particularly interested in helping people avoid evictions. In a news release last year, she noted that someone who is simply arrested in Seattle can be evicted – “which, to me, feels like the opposite of justice.”
In a report to the Seattle City Council earlier this year, DPD analyzed more than 300 referrals to the new program and found that 24 percent of them faced a loss of housing, 12 percent were facing employment impacts and 10 percent stood to lose public benefits. Two-thirds of the clients were male, and one-third were African-American.
Khandelwal said she’s deeply encouraged by the work of the three attorneys and hopes to see the program expand over time. This is the kind of work, she said, that not only makes a difference in a person’s life – it is also in the public interest.
“Housing is a protective factor against recidivism. So is employment,” she said. “All of us want to see people rehabilitate and reintegrate into the community. And that’s really the issue here, making sure people are able to get on with their lives once the criminal matter is behind them.”