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Dietrich who has been a leader among employment lawyers working to counter the harm that criminal records, sometimes outdated and inaccurate can cause.


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Dietrich has been a leader among employment lawyers working to counter the harm that criminal records, sometimes outdated and inaccurate, cause.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

Q. There seems to be growing support for sealing records.

A. Policymakers, advocates, that’s mostly who has gotten to understand that something has to be done. Taxpayer advocates, too, as the costs (of) over-criminalization and people not being able to work have gone up. That’s part of the reason you see conservative interest in this issue.

Q. Explain.

A. It’s the combination of conservatives understanding the costs of over-incarcerating people and keeping people out of the workplace. Plus, in many cases, the strong libertarian bent has led people like the Koch brothers to say this is a problem: Why is the government in so many people’s business?

So now, the left and right are often able to advocate on the same side for these issues, which, back when we started, you could have never imagined these bipartisan coalitions.

There are politics around laws on records because legislators, if they do the right thing, sometimes have to worry they’re going to be accused of being soft on crime.

Q. With Act 5, can a job-seeker with an old low-level misdemeanor or arrest without conviction deny having a record?

A. Act 5 says you can deny the case without having to struggle with what to say.

Q. How will it play out?

A. We’re worried that there’s going to be a big bottleneck. It’s a low-impact legal proceeding that doesn’t take all that much lawyer or court or client time. It’s all the paper that has to be pushed around that is making it take longer, four, five, or six months.

Q. How do you persist?

A. If you don’t have patience, you’re not going to get anywhere because this is hard. We have built things that didn’t exist. We helped advocate for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to put out new guidance. There had been no challenge to state laws that were unconstitutional.

Q. Advice for young lawyers?

A. Remember you have a human being on the other side of your desk. You may be telling people about convictions that can’t be expunged. These are things I’ve done over and over, but they are really difficult truths this person may be hearing for the first time.

Q. What’s the right approach?

A. Be patient. Put yourself into their mind-set about what they’re likely to understand. You have to communicate clearly. Lawyers sometimes have trouble with those things.

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