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from Crain’s Cleveland Busines: LegalWorks looks to change lives by sealing criminal records

Posted October 24, 2020
5:00 pm

Written by Douglas J. Guth in Crain's Cleveland Business on 10/24/2020.

Cleveland attorney James Levin founded the organization to combat legal issues no matter how incidental, as it's often the little things that mire people in the system for decades.

As a young woman, Jacquelyn Gaiman struck someone in self-defense, a man who she said had attacked her. Police arrested Gaiman on a domestic violence charge, staining her permanent record and locking her out of employment or any semblance of a normal existence.

"I absolutely believed my record would never be cleared," said Gaiman, a mother of two from Cleveland. "I was at a loss. Fully depressed and angry with life, myself and my kids. I couldn't understand why, when they said they want people to be a productive part of society, nobody would take a chance and hire me."

Gaiman pursued an expungement, referring to the right every citizen has to get their arrest and conviction records permanently sealed. But like many individuals in similar  circumstances, her hoped-for clean slate remained messy.

In 2016, a 211 helpline counselor gave Gaiman contact info for LegalWorks, a Cleveland nonprofit known for removing legal obstacles similar to what she faced. Within months, the low-cost legal clinic wiped away the problems haunting Gaiman for nearly a quarter century. Now an administrative assistant at Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), she is busy honing skills for the next stage of what she hopes is a successful career.

"That's all I wanted to do — to go to work and take care of my kids," Gaiman said. "I'm a much happier person now, and that means so much."

Gaiman is also eager to praise James Levin, the Cleveland attorney who founded LegalWorks in 2014. Levin launched his organization to combat legal issues no matter how incidental, as it's often the little things that mire people in the system for decades. Whether a minor misdemeanor or an arrest warrant for an old traffic ticket, their consequences can limit a person's work options, housing, credit rating and even their health care.

"If you're trying to get a job, a criminal record or open warrant is the first thing that will flag during a background check," Levin said. "So I said let's offer a service that seals records and gets arrest warrants removed."

Cases can be complex

Since 2014, LegalWorks has sealed or vacated 1,000 criminal records and arrest warrants, including 300 last year. Around 85% of Levin's clients are minorities facing immediate arrest and apprehension — about 70,000 arrest warrants are on file in the city of Cleveland alone.

LegalWorks' motion-to-seal fees are nominal compared to what most attorneys charge, Levin said. Investigations into individual cases within Cleveland or county common pleas court are $50, part of a fee scale topping at $200 for cases tried in adjacent counties. Attorney fees are unrelated to court costs, which can range from $50 to $100.

Eligible candidates are allowed five or fewer nonviolent felonies as well as unlimited nonviolent misdemeanors. Levin has also gotten assaults vacated — as in the instance of Gaiman's domestic violence case — to activate eligibility.

While many cases are relatively simple to deconstruct, some clients arrive with intricate legal situations that Levin and his small team must untangle. A court may deem an attempted robbery as a crime of violence even if the robbery never happened. Or someone stealing items from a Target may be charged with multiple felonies.

Levin has empathy for everyone who arrives at his Famicos Foundation-based LegalWorks clinic — one of four offices scattered throughout Greater Cleveland — but there are times when he has to turn down a candidate.

"We're tougher than ever when it comes to saying no," Levin said. "That's hard, because you hear stories of such desperation, and you're thinking of how you can help. Sometimes you can't."

The idea for an affordable legal clinic came to Levin on a homicide case where not one of the 20 witnesses scheduled to testify on behalf of his client showed up to court.

"All these guys had open warrants," said Levin, whose legal life is balanced by cultural accomplishments including the birthing of Cleveland Public Theatre and IngenuityFest. "Petty infractions such as traffic violations or misdemeanors. A criminal lawyer can go to a clerk's office and get a warrant removed, but lawyers also charge for a retainer. None of those guys could afford it."

Watching clients blossom

The disproportionate fallout of an unfair legal system motivated Levin when approaching Famicos Foundation about opening his first clinic. Sealing records has changed lives,

leading to improved employment, better credit and unrestricted housing opportunities, he said.

Despite having three academic degrees, Gaiman said her legal history shut her out of meaningful work. Levin not only helped seal her records, he hired her as an administrative assistant during the months long legal process. Gaiman now calls the attorney a close friend, one who may have literally saved her life.

"I love him to death," Gaiman said. "James knows his stuff and doesn't mind letting anyone know it. His belief in me meant so much. There should be five of him, because people need him and the services he offers."

Securing justice for the disenfranchised is the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland's mission, making its relationship with Levin a natural one, said executive director Colleen Cotter. Legal Aid partners with the clinic on referrals as well as creating events around the collateral

consequences of criminal convictions.

Cotter pointed to Levin's focus on people of color, who are ensnared in the criminal justice system at a higher rate than white people.

"They're already behind the eight-ball, and their issues are compounded by a prior record," Cotter said. "Now they're able to have a fresh start without having to check that criminal box on a job application. Folks can instead hold their head up high and say, 'I'm qualified for this job.' That's transformative."

Like nearly every facet of society, Levin's work has been impacted by the pandemic. LegalWorks conducts interviews via teleconference or phone and is currently developing a program with Cleveland Public Library on giving would-be clients weekly computer lab access.

Levin looks forward to making more friends like Gaiman — people now blossoming after losing years of their lives.

"I'm inspired by what so many of my clients have been able to do," Levin said. "Being part of their stories is heartening."

Click here to read the full article in Crain's Cleveland Business.

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