For Carlton Martin, the Legal Clinic staff attorney who heads up Project GRACE (Guided Re-Entry Assistance and Community Education), working in Expungement Law comes with a fair number of obstacles, not the least of which are other people’s attitudes. Carlton says, “It used to be, back in the past—1800s, 1700s—people committed crimes because there was something inherently flawed in them—that was the thought. And that’s still the mindset: you are a deviant because that is what you are.” Carlton is quick to point out, however, that most of the people he sees made a mistake when they were young. And yet a crime committed 20 years earlier might prevent them from finding sufficient employment even into their middle age. “If you don’t have a job, you’re not making any money. Not making any money, you can’t pay your child support. Can’t pay your child support, you can’t have your license … so your livelihood just goes, ‘Boom!’” Carlton makes an exploding gesture with his hands. “You can’t pay your bills, and then you’re in a position where bankruptcy is an option.”
Due to the stigma associated with ex-offenders, people also often encounter problems finding housing. In fact, Carlton says, apart from mental health, this is one of the biggest issues facing those with criminal records. Thus, in addition to helping clients understand the law and if they may be eligible for an expungement, Carlton and the other Project GRACE staff spend much of their time simply educating community leaders, like those who own apartment buildings. They work to build networks. He says, “You have all these systems that don’t communicate … When you don’t have communication and connectivity, you’re isolated, you have issues that arise, and you’re left on an island alone and you can’t fix anything.”
This isolation keeps programs from helping those in need and it keeps those in need from those who may be able to help them. Carlton says, “When you’re incarcerated, when you come out, you’re marginalized; you’re isolated. You don’t interact with people that have a particular type of skill set and mindset that can help you and give you information that you wouldn’t be able to get.” For Carlton, using the skill sets we have to help those in need is necessary to maintain a thriving community. He says, “Most families can relate to somebody that they know being incarcerated. It’s why it’s called mass incarceration: because it’s a huge problem.”
Carlton understands the fear that people may have when thinking about someone with a criminal record, but the type of person Carlton sees is very different than one might expect. He says, “I don’t run into a lot of people that are very difficult clients who are just unsatisfied all the time.” When I ask him why he thinks this is, he says, “These people, they’ve been humbled. They’re in a humble position. I mean you really are stuck if you have a criminal record.”
Project GRACE means to live up to its own name and to help people get unstuck so that they can finally move on from their past. This is something Carlton wants for all of his clients. He says, ”Renewal is about second chances; it’s about regeneration … It’s about leaving an old you or an old lifestyle and your whole situation behind and stepping into something new.”
To learn more about Project GRACE, please visit our website here.