Criminal records are a major hurdle to landing a job, which is why removing barriers to employment for low-income workers is the focus of Equal Justice Works’ next national program.

Equal Justice Works—a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization that supports public-interest law careers—last week won $1.4 million from AmeriCorps to launch an Employment Opportunity Legal Corps. The legal aid organizations and Equal Justice Works will contribute $1.1 million, giving the project a $2.5 million budget for three years.

Organizers will send 40 lawyers and 360 law students to legal aid organizations around the country starting in August. Once deployed, the students and lawyers will help poor people eliminate some of the legal problems that hurt their prospects—expunging misdemeanors from criminal records or helping them secure valid drivers licenses and obtain occupational licenses.

“Sixty-five million Americans have criminal records, and a lot of what we’ll be working on is expunging misdemeanor records,” Equal Justice executive director David Stern said. “These misdemeanors can be a blemish when employers do a criminal record check. These applicants don’t get called back for interviews.”

Two-thirds of all criminal records involve misdemeanors and more than 90 percent of employers use criminal records to screen employees.

Research has shown that job applicants who report a criminal record are 50 percent less likely to get a call back for a job interview than someone who does not report such a record, Stern said. The numbers are far worse for blacks with criminal records—they are 250 percent less likely to get a call back. Moreover, at least half of black men are arrested by the time they are 23 years old, Stern said.

“No matter how much vocational training people have, criminal backgrounds prevent them from getting a job,” he said.

Research by the East Bay Community Center, a legal aid clinic run by the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, found that expunging criminal records increased a person’s earnings by 20 percent and that 73 percent of people whose records were expunged secured a job within four months.

Forty states now allow for removal of minor infractions from criminal records, although people need legal assistance to do so. In addition, the corps will ensure that credit agencies receive the updated information, since most employers use those agencies to perform checks. “There are a lot of layers to the process,” Stern said.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has introduced a bill in the New York state Legislature that would provide for the expungement of some records of non-violent offenders, for misdemeanor convictions if offenders go seven years without being re-arrested and for felony offenders who go 10 years from the date of their convictions without being arrested again.

Lippman said the proposal would not apply to sex offenders, public corruption cases and DWI-related offenses.

The expungements would reduce the instances where a former offender is hampered from becoming a “productive, law-abiding member of society” due to a relatively minor criminal record, the chief judge said in his 2014 State of the Judiciary address (NYLJ, Feb. 13).

The bill has yet to find sponsors in either the state Assembly or Senate, but Office of Court Administration officials have been in discussions with legislators over the proposal, Marc Bloustein, the Unified Court System’s legislative counsel, said this week.

Lawyers accepted as corps members will spend one or two years at participating organizations on a base salary of $24,000, although they will be eligible for additional housing, food and transportation support. Students will do the same work for a summer or may work through law school clinics.

The program is modeled after Equal Justice Works’ Veterans Legal Corps, which sends lawyers and students into temporary jobs assisting veterans.

Stern said Equal Justice Works has already heard from legal aid providers who want to host an attorney or student. The program will accept applications from organizations until June 2 and expects to begin accepting applications for fellows in July.

“I have no doubt this program will generate many applications,” he said.