Marcus Miller is a 2L student at Harvard Law School. He is a clinical student in the Veterans Law and Disability Clinic, working in the Safety Net Project during the Fall 2020 semester.
By Marcus Miller ’22
As this country continues to grapple with the devastating impacts of its broken criminal justice system, particularly on poor, Black and Brown communities and other marginalized communities, the topic of collateral consequences—consequences that an individual faces due to simply having a criminal record—can often seem like an after-thought. However, these consequences can be just as harmful, if not more harmful than the actual sentence an individual may receive. That is especially true when an individual’s criminal record includes only non-convictions, such as when a prosecutor files charges against an individual and later dismisses them (often because the individual isn’t guilty of the charges), or when a jury issues a not guilty verdict after a trial. Indeed, individuals who only have charges on their record are often subject to the same harsh consequences as someone who has been convicted of a crime.
Some of the most common collateral consequences for a person with a criminal record include problems securing employment, finding housing (both public and private), accessing public benefits, as well as potentially severe implications for immigration status. The consequences extend far beyond those listed here, and in addition to these “hard” barriers, individuals with criminal records face “soft” barriers too, such as having a negative stigma attached to them seemingly forever. Individuals with a criminal record have the label of being a criminal for the rest of their life, regardless of how long it has been since they committed their offense, or whether they even committed any offenses to begin with. As alluded to earlier, communities of color—particularly Black men—face these consequences at disproportionate rates.
To help with that effort, students in the Safety Net Project (part of the clinic I have the privilege of participating in), as well as Harvard Defenders, teamed up to staff a virtual CORI sealing clinic run by the Lawyers Clearinghouse, an organization that matches clients throughout the state with pro bono attorneys and student attorneys. (In Massachusetts, a person’s criminal record is commonly called a CORI, which stands for Criminal Offender Record Information.)
I had the opportunity to hear from a client first-hand about the challenges he faced not just while his case was being processed through the system, but for years after his case was closed. Experiences like these inspire me every day to continue towards my goal of being a public defender after graduation, because it helps me better understand the hardships my clients are facing, and will potentially face in the future. Learning about these consequences helps me serve my current and future clients better, and I find that to be the most exciting and fulfilling part of my experience with the CORI sealing clinic.
Through my work with LSC’s Safety Net Project and the CORI sealing clinic, and under the supervision of SNP Director Julie McCormack, I also have the opportunity to gain client interviewing, written, and oral advocacy skills. I am currently preparing to represent my client in court to petition to the judge to exercise their discretion in sealing my client’s record.
Every day I’m grateful to my clients for trusting us enough to help them. It is an honor and privilege to represent clients each and every day to help improve their lives. And while I know that we, as future lawyers, play such a small role in correcting grave injustices within our legal system, it is rewarding to know that the work I do makes our system a little more just, one client at a time.