By Meredith S. Auten, President of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation
April is Second Chance Month in the United States. When President Joseph R. Biden proclaimed April as Second Chance month in March 2021, he said “By focusing on prevention, reentry, and social support, rather than incarceration, we can ensure that America is a land of second chances and opportunity for all people.” According to Prison Fellowship, a nonprofit committed to a restorative approach to prisoners, former prisoners, and all those affected by crime and incarceration, approximately 1 in 3 American adults has a criminal record. Criminal records make it extraordinarily difficult for individuals to access basic needs such as housing, healthcare, and education. Gaining access to jobs and other opportunities can be even more challenging. For folks who have been incarcerated, especially those who have been incarcerated for much of their lives, the barriers to reentry are even greater. The Philadelphia Bar Foundation is committed to removing barriers to justice, including those faced by individuals who have criminal records and/or have been incarcerated.
The Foundation’s Judge Alfred L. Luongo Fund (“Luongo Fund”) supports the Supervision to Aid Reentry (STAR) Program of the Reentry Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The STAR Program, which is a collaboration among the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, U.S. Probation Office, U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Public Defender’s Office, and various community partners in Philadelphia, assists those who are on supervised release to succeed in transitioning back into the community. Since its inception, the STAR Program has had great success in reducing recidivism rates. The Luongo Fund was established in 2015, after Judge McHugh began judicial service and noticed a number of requests for assistance for STAR program participants. Judge McHugh established the Luongo Fund in honor of Chief Judge Alfred L. Luongo, his late mentor. The Luongo Fund assists those in reentry with emergency expenses, including assistance with education, employment, housing, health care, and childcare, and has attracted national attention. This Fund also supports two other specialized courts, the STRIDES program and Relapse Prevention Court. Both of these courts are critical to improving the chance of long-term success for individuals in reentry who are experiencing challenges with substance abuse and mental health.
There are many organizations in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania that support individuals with criminal records, including several of the Foundation’s nonprofit partners. Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) provides free legal advice and representation to low-income Philadelphia residents whose criminal records are holding them back from achieving their social and career potentials. PLSE’s Criminal Record Expungement Project helps qualified individuals through the expungement process. The organization also hosts Expungement Clinics that are often free and open to the public where individuals can learn more about their rights and the different ways they can get rid of their criminal record – expungement or pardons. PLSE often partners with other organizations, including some of our nonprofit partners such as Community Legal Services, on these community-based clinics. PLSE also does training and advocacy around pardons, which can be life-changing for individuals with criminal records. Through its Pardon Project, PLSE advocates for a more equitable pardons process in Pennsylvania, and trains individuals and community organizations on how to help individuals submit pardon applications.
Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRRP) is a direct service and advocacy organization. The YSRP team works tirelessly on behalf of children being prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system and fights to ensure fair and thoughtful resentencing and reentry for “Juvenile Lifers” – children who were sentenced to life without parole. YSRP and another nonprofit partner Juvenile Law Center are members of the Care, Not Control campaign, which seeks to end youth incarceration in Pennsylvania and fights for the right of young Pennsylvanians to live full and healthy lives. Public Interest Law Center advocates on behalf of individuals with criminal records on a number of issues, including fighting against employment discrimination and protecting voting rights. During the height of the covid-19 pandemic, Public Interest Law Center successfully reversed a restriction by the Small Business Administration that that prevented business owners with criminal records from receiving Paycheck Protection Program loans.
Everyone deserves a second chance. This month, we hope you will consider donating to one of the organizations that is doing this critical work. The Luongo Fund also relies on the generosity of individuals to sustain its work, and your contribution will go directly towards ameliorating the daily demands that prevent individuals from achieving a successful transition back into society. You can donate to the Luongo Fund by visiting www.philabarfoundation.org/donate and selecting Judge Alfred J. Luongo Fund as your gift designation. Thank you as always for your generous support of the fight for equal access to justice.