Jan 17, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

In November of 2017, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that Tarra Simmons, who served prison time for a drug conviction, had the “requisite moral character and fitness to practice law” and would “be allowed to sit for the Washington bar examination.”

Before the ruling, the Washington State Bar Association voted against letting Simmons, a graduate of Seattle University School of Law, take the bar exam because of her past.

Why is it difficult for ex-convicts to become lawyers?

One reason: even though nothing prohibits ex-convicts from working as lawyers, their prior conviction “creates a presumption that the applicant lacks good moral character.”

Simmons exemplifies that presumption overturned. She turned her life around after her prison sentence, did well in law school, but still had to fight.

In September of 2017, award-winning author and Yale Law School graduate Reginald Dwayne Betts, won approval to practice law in Connecticut. He had three felony convictions for a carjacking from twenty years ago.

He had to disabuse the “presumption” that he lacked “good moral character,” and his supporters flooded the state panel in Connecticut about his good moral character.    

After he served eight years in prison for the carjacking, he graduated from the University of Maryland, won a Harvard fellowship, earned a Yale law degree, and published two highly acclaimed books of poetry.

The difference for lawyers like Simmons and Betts? They have to prove their characters are worthy of the profession.

Excluding ex-convicts excludes a significant part of the population

Approximately 70 million people in the US have some type of criminal record. Nearly 700,000 are released from prison every year. According to the Sentencing Project, nearly 60 percent of those people are unemployed a year after their release.

Nationally in the US, 150 cities and counties have laws that prevent employers from asking job applicants about their criminal histories. Despite that, applicants with criminal backgrounds are still less likely to find gainful employment.

In an article on Bloomberg, the American Bar Association (ABA) defends its stance on ex-convicts. They said that the public must be “secure in its expectation of those who are admitted to the bar are worthy of the trust and confidence clients may reasonably place in their lawyers.”

While the ABA  wants to “promote full and equal participation in the association, our profession, and the justice system by all persons” and “eliminate bias in the legal profession and the justice system,” ex-convicts who’ve proven their moral character still find it difficult to participate.

The fear? The ABA and many state bar associations fear the “PR fiasco” that could ensue for having ex-convicts—released, highly-educated, and with high moral character—practice law.

Prisoners often feel drawn toward law as a discipline

Studying law hits close to home for many prisoners and ex-convicts. Why? Once in prison, many want to understand what happened, why, and how to prevent it from happening again. Others want to help their peers.

In a 2011 article in The Guardian, Peter Stanford, director of The Longford Trust, which offers scholarships to current and former convicts said, “In many ways it's entirely understandable why prisoners who get involved in education should feel drawn to law as a subject. They're far more likely to want to study law than they are to be drawn to, say, English or classics or history – these subjects aren't going to have the same relevance for them that they do for young people coming out of school, who have maybe had more advantages in life than many of those who end up in jail.”

The screening process for ex-convicts is obsolete

The stories of Simmons and Betts are not unusual.

Currently, all jurisdictions in the US have a character and fitness requirement for aspiring attorneys. This requirement is supposed to protect the public from unscrupulous individuals. In theory, it’s about quality control—the character and fitness requirements to take the bar protect against the profession’s reputation.

This system doesn’t always work, though, as there’s a need for attorney discipline agencies, and there are high incidences of dishonest lawyers.

Past behavior may shed light on an individual, but isn’t always a good predictor of future behavior, as Simmons and Betts show.

It’s a way to reset the expectations for ex-convicts

Ex-convicts have limited rights, even after they’re out of prison. Many states restrict voting rights, and some have laws that prevent ex-convicts from securing jobs for which they’re otherwise qualified.

By allowing ex-convicts who meet the requirements for educational and workforce opportunities have a chance, the expectations for their success change.

When ex-convicts have a chance to give back in a positive way to their communities, they should have the opportunity—even when it means going to law school.

 

Learn more about studying law.

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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