By Joelle Eliza Mercado Lingat
My experience with Northeast New Jersey Legal Services was incredibly enriching and powerful. My internship was based on the high need for expungement work in Hudson County, particularly my hometown of Jersey City.
Although other agencies providing expungement services usually pay for a criminal background check, our funding does not allow us to procure these on behalf of our clients and the clients themselves have very little access to funding. As such, a majority of the research and record requests were done by the attorneys and interns. I worked with different agencies such as the Municipal Court and the various police departments in order to procure accurate records for the client. At times, we would even find records that were no longer reflected in the criminal background check because of various circumstances. Sometimes, records would not be readily accessible and would take about a two to three week turn around time because the offense occurred before a uniform filing system was set or before computers were utilized. Hurricane Sandy also played a major factor as several storage sites of older files were destroyed by the superstorm. This put us in a particularly difficult position because the offense still showed up on their record, but there were no documents we could use to get it expunged.
The most impactful moments for me were working with people hoping to become public servants that were struggling to move forward with their lives due to offenses from decades ago. One client in particular had a compelling story that I still remember vividly. He first became involved in drugs and gang activity as a young teenager because of the poverty-ridden reality of our city. By the age of 16, he already had numerous infractions and was serving jail time by the time he was 19. Since then, he has forged a new life for himself. The love he has for his daughter and wife is palpable whenever he speaks. He hopes to be an inspiration for other youth in similar situations by demonstrating by example that they are owed more than the reality that they are given.
This client wants to be a firefighter so that his daughter can be proud of him and feel confident and supported by his steady income. When we first met him, he was working at barbershops because he could not get employed due to his criminal record. Despite his educational background and stellar work history after his incarceration, he was still continually being denied work, although of course his potential employers never framed it that way. Further, he even hired an expungement attorney to work on his case and spent over $5,000, but the attorney gave up on his case and failed to get the expungement. He had given up for several years on his dream of becoming a firefighter, but after learning about our services, he decided that he would try one more time. We worked diligently to put together as compelling of an application as possible together. We received letters from family, friends, his church, and even the barbershops where he worked. Although my internship was over by the time the court responded, we felt confident in his application.
This is just one story among many that I was able to witness while at NNJLS. The attorneys and staff there are client-centered and make substantial contributions to the fabric of the community. Without NNJLS, there would be a huge disparity of access to legal services and people’s civil rights in Hudson County. I felt incredibly honored to be able to work in my home community and to learn so much about their work firsthand. I am very grateful to the NLG for giving me the opportunity to work with my community and build with them as I sought out to do when I first began law school. I also wanted to thank the attorneys and staff at NNJLS for taking me under their wing and training me with such passion for their work. It has truly been an amazing experience.