ABA news: Lawyers needed to help former inmates

About 95% of inmates eventually return to society, according to reentry trends. However, upon their release, what are they returning to? According to panelists during the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice webinar, “The Obligation of Lawyers to Facilitate Effective Reentry,” they return without enough support and resources.

They are “forced to fend for themselves,” said Melanie E. Bates, vice chair of the Criminal Justice Committee of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. Bates moderated the discussion between two people who have lived through reentry. Carmen Johnson, author and founder of Helping Ourselves to Transform, served a three-year sentence for what she described as a wrongful conviction. Sean Kyler, associate director of operations for Advocacy & Partnerships at the Vera Institute of Justice, served a 25-year sentence for what he also said was a wrongful conviction.

The purpose of the webinar was to encourage lawyers to use some of their required 50 hours of pro bono service each year on reentry efforts. Those who have lived through the experience say lawyers’ help is needed.

For instance, Johnson said that when she was released, she went to many organizations to seek resources and ways to reconnect to her life, but she had a lot of obstacles. “It was hard,” she said. She especially saw a need to assist women who are released from prison.

Kyler, who currently assists individuals with reentry, said better systems need to help facilitate stable housing, employment and basic needs such as obtaining an ID card or driver’s license.

Both Johnson and Kyler said lawyers can do more to help their clients and former clients. “Lawyers are quick to tell you, ‘I stopped working on your case at sentencing,’” Johnson said.

“It’s a hurtful thing. They say they can’t help, it’s inhumane.”

Johnson said lawyers need to be more involved because often clients are without money and resources after spending all they had on their cases. Kyler said the lawyer who has been through the process with clients often knows them better than family, and could help better facilitate reentry. The two agreed that having a social worker on a firm’s staff could help too.

According to Johnson and Kyler, some ways lawyers could help include providing a listening ear without a fee when people are released from prison; sitting on organizational boards that help with reentry; and devoting pro bono hours to the reentry cause.

“Attorneys need to do more,” Johnson said. “They have an obligation to their clients.”

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