Legal Advocate Helps Workers Under Shadow Of Criminal Records

By Jane M. Von Bergen
The Philadelphia Inquirer

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great Q&A with attorney Sharon Dietrich who has been a leader among employment lawyers working to counter the harm that criminal records, sometimes outdated and inaccurate can cause.

PHILADELPHIA

When it comes to how poor people are treated at work, Sharon Dietrich gets mad.

“I’m mad on a daily basis,” said Dietrich, litigation director and managing attorney of the employment law practice at Community Legal Services.

And what does Dietrich do when she gets mad? “I sue people,” she said. “I go to the governor’s office. I go to the legislature and we try to figure out how we can change this.”

The latest?
On Nov. 14, amendments to a Pennsylvania law, Act 5, went into effect. They allow people to ask the courts to seal their criminal records for minor crimes. Law enforcement agencies can still see the entire record.

“Criminal records are the things that are killing our clients, and the reason that they’re primarily coming to seek help here,” Dietrich said. They have problems getting jobs and housing.

“It is a good start, for old misdemeanor convictions finally being eligible to be sealed. But it is just the first step,” she said. “We need the Clean Slate bill, which would make sealing automatic.”

For decades, Dietrich has been a leader among employment lawyers working to counter the harm that criminal records, sometimes outdated and inaccurate, cause.

Q. What is it like to work with your clients?

A. There might have been a moment when I needed to get used to the idea that my clients had records. But what’s striking when you talk to people with records is how not different they are from everybody else. They are not people that strike you as dangerous and they often have the same types of life issues. They need money. They have kids. And they have dreams.

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