By Sylvia Soltis
Since 2015, Legal Aid’s Reentry Justice Project has been helping clients who face barriers in accessing housing, employment, and other opportunities due to a criminal record. Individuals who have interacted with police and the criminal legal system — disproportionately people of color and people who live in areas of concentrated poverty — find themselves facing a multitude of collateral civil consequences that act in real and concrete ways to perpetuate generational cycles of poverty. The Project seeks to eliminate those barriers through direct representation and systemic advocacy.
In 2020, Legal Aid launched a pro bono component to the Reentry Justice Project. The role of a pro bono attorney in the Reentry Justice Project is to prepare and file a criminal record sealing motion in the Superior Court of D.C. on behalf of their client and if granted by the Court, ensure compliance with the order.
One of the Project’s first firm partners was Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. The firm soon emerged with a pro bono advocate that would eventually set a higher standard in pro bono representation in Legal Aid’s criminal record sealing practice.
Samantha (Sam) Sergent, an associate who has worked in the firm’s Capital Markets and National Security and Regulatory practice groups, has taken the lead or served as an internal resource and mentor to her colleagues on 10 pro bono referrals from Legal Aid over the last three years. In every case on which Sam has been engaged, she effectively and compassionately conveys to the court her clients’ life experiences regarding issues such as homelessness, domestic violence, trauma, and disability. In every motion, she expertly presents a picture of her clients’ lives in a humanizing, holistic, and empowering way.
Sam’s efforts in the Reentry Justice Project have truly gone above and beyond. Her representation in these cases provides an opportunity for her clients to find closure and move beyond these records, in many cases after years of no interaction with the criminal legal system. She has become known throughout the Project as an expert in criminal record sealing matters. Her mentorship to her Simpson Thacher colleagues has also inspired others to get involved.
When asked what continues to motivate her to take on more cases, Sam recalls how eye-opening her first criminal record sealing pro bono case referral from Legal Aid was. Having engaged in criminal record sealing efforts through her firm’s partnership with a Kentucky legal services provider, Sam was surprised to learn how much more complicated DC’s record sealing statutory scheme is than other jurisdictions and how critical it is to have an attorney here.
Her first client, Mr. Ales* had come to Legal Aid seeking help to have his criminal records sealed. He had four arrests appearing on his record from several decades before —none of which had resulted in a conviction. Two of the charges included failure to pay bus fare and another that is no longer criminalized in our system.
“Mr. Ales was struggling to find affordable housing because each time he applied for housing, these records would appear in his background checks. Arrests from the 1980s were appearing in his job application background checks. It made me wonder — if our criminal justice system is meant to be rehabilitative, then why are we continuing to penalize people for things that are no longer even considered a crime decades later? Why is our system hampering their futures in such detrimental ways?”
The limitations of our criminal record sealing laws were not lost on Sam, and it has fueled her motivation to continue assisting in these cases. Her pro bono practice allows her to give back to those who might not have the means to hire an attorney.
“As a corporate attorney, I have found these cases to be accessible and fulfilling because of the direct impact. After you listen to your clients, you understand why it’s so important to help — whether it’s because these records are hindering employment or housing opportunities. To know how big of a burden it has been on their life, it motivates you to move forward and push for change.”
Legal Aid is grateful to partner with Sam Sergent and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett on these matters. Our client community is lucky to have a pro bono attorney as empathic and motivated as Sam. We look forward to her and the firm’s continued involvement in the Reentry Justice Project.
*Name changed to protect confidentiality
Sylvia Soltis is the Director of Pro Bono, Volunteer, and Intern Programs at Legal Aid DC. Legal Aid DC is the oldest and largest general civil legal services program in the District of Columbia. The organization was created in 1932 with the goal of making justice real – in individual and systemic ways – for persons living in poverty in the District of Columbia. For more information about Legal Aid, please visit our website, www.LegalAidDC.org.