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The Office of the Vermont Attorney General has named Vermont Legal Aid attorney Mairead O’Reilly the “Vermonter of the Month” because of her work on expungement. Learn more about criminal record expungement in Vermont and our expungement clinics. The attorney general’s press release follows.

Vermonter of the Month: Mairead O’Reilly

Now a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid (VLA), Mairead was a strong advocate for a change to Vermont’s expungement law. Thanks in part to Mairead’s effective work educating the legislature, building consensus, and amplifying the issue on social media, the law Mairead advocated for is now in effect, allowing individuals with certain criminal convictions, such as drug possessions, to be expunged.

Believing, as we do, that these individuals who have paid their debt to society should not continue to be punished by being denied access to jobs, housing, or education, Mairead has spear-headed expungement clinics in several counties around the state. The Attorney General and several staff members joined Mairead recently at an expungement clinic in Hyde Park. More expungement clinics are being planned for the future.

We visited Mairead in her office to learn more about the inspiring work she is doing.

You have been a passionate advocate for access to expungements. What drives your work in this area?

At the most basic level, I believe that the way we use criminal records in this country is both cruel and illogical, which is a combination I cannot tolerate. It’s also an issue that directly impacts so many of our people in terrible ways—approximately one-third of people in the U.S. have records.

The mass dissemination of criminal records, and the collateral consequences that result, is cruel because it brands people as “unworthy” of integration within the community and allows discrimination against them, sometimes for their whole lives. Even if our criminal justice system was perfect and responded to crime proportionately across all communities—which it does not—a person is sentenced to a penalty that is supposed to be proportionate with their crime. Tacking on additional punishment after they complete their sentence—in the form of social and economic exclusion—is unfair. It also erodes public trust in our system of justice.

I think that the way we use criminal records now is counterproductive to creating a vibrant, healthy, safe, and economically viable community. When we prevent access to opportunity, we create an underclass of people who have few legal options to sustain their lives, which makes our communities less safe. We also lose tax revenues because people with records are paid less, and are more likely to be on public assistance.

I firmly believe that no one’s life is disposable, and no one should be treated as though it is, ever, not even after they are convicted of a crime. We need to send that message to Vermonters by inviting them back into our communities. Expunging criminal records, both practically and symbolically, invites people back into our communities.

Vermont’s expungement law is less than a year old. What sort of impact is it making on the lives of Vermonters?

Criminal record expungement is not a cure-all, but recent expansions to the law have had many of the anticipated results, including bringing people back into the community and allowing them to live more dignified lives.

Our clients are getting accepted into colleges and training programs; they’re getting promoted; they’re being accepted into higher-paying jobs; they’re transitioning off of public assistance; and, they’re free to travel across the border and participate in their kids’ school activities. I hope we can find research partners to help us further analyze the outcomes for our clients.

It’s also worth noting that while we have seen a significant impact in the filing of expungement petitions, the uptake rates are likely still very low. I don’t have Vermont specific data, but a study out of Michigan found that six percent of people eligible for expungement petitioned within five years of eligibility. I imagine Vermont is somewhere around that percentage.

Realistically, for this sort of legal remedy to have the intended public safety and economic impacts, the answer is to automate record clearance as has been done in Pennsylvania, Utah, and California. Several states, including Colorado, Connecticut, and New York, have proposed similar legislation this session. I hope that Vermont will seriously consider implementing an automated system that clears records routinely after a set period.

You made your way to Vermont after law school by serving as the Vermont Poverty Law fellow. How did that work inform your current work?

You made your way to Vermont after law school by serving as the Vermont Poverty Law fellow. How did that work inform your current work?

The fellowship directly shaped the work I’m currently doing, and in a sense, VLA and I constructed and piloted my current job while I was the Fellow. Now, I am a staff attorney for VLA at a Medical Legal Partnership with the Chittenden Clinic and Safe Recovery, serving people with substance use disorders. As my fellowship was focused on the opioid crisis, during that time I collaborated with Safe Recovery, our medication-assisted treatment hub, and a few local spokes, and developed what I called a “Medical-Legal Partnership-esque” program.

This past summer, VLA received a grant from the Department of Health to continue and expand this collaboration. VLA now has two staff attorneys working as Medical Legal Partnership attorneys with the Chittenden and Washington County hubs and with Safe Recovery. We’re looking to expand the program into the Northeast Kingdom as well. 

As an attorney and advocate, what tools do you use to spread awareness about the challenges facing low-income Vermonters to make an impact on their lives?

I am a millennial, which is to say I think social media can be a very useful tool to highlight issues and challenges facing our communities. I also find that it’s an invaluable way to connect with folks doing similar work—to share lessons, challenges, and perspectives.

Another tool to both spread awareness and make an impact is to diversify the type of advocacy I engage in. I think that advocating in administrative and legislative branches can be an effective way to impact change. Many issues facing my clients are caused by laws and rules that were drafted without due consideration of their needs, so courtroom advocacy has its limitations. I think that sharing the practical realities of our clients in the legislature, while advocating for change, can be an effective way to both highlight and address root causes of poverty.

We hear a lot about how young professionals are leaving Vermont for more urban areas. What about Vermont keeps you committed to this community?

In short, the people; the human-centered politics; the topography; the ethos; the healthy, local food. To me, Vermont has all the ingredients for a pretty ideal existence, and selfishly, that makes me want to stick around.

There is also so much good, collaborative work for justice happening across the state, and there’s so much openness to further growth from professionals across disciplines. I’m not blind to the issues plaguing Vermont: we struggle with injustices of all kinds, and our institutions are far from perfect. But I see genuine commitment across the state, in all branches of government and in all sectors, to do better for our people and our environment. At the end of the day, that motivates me to stay, to help build a more just and equitable state, and to ultimately show the rest of the nation that another way is possible.

Recent press coverage for expungement clinics

WCAX-TV3: Legal clinic offers a chance for a clean slate

VTDigger.com: Legal expungement clinic offers Vermonters a chance to start over

VT Digger photo

Vermonters face broad and substantial unmet civil legal needs. These needs are present across the entire spectrum of civil legal subject areas — including family law, housing, healthcare, public benefits, debt and more. This statewide study reviewed a broad range of objective and subjective data to determine the most persistent areas of unmet civil legal need in the state. Follow this link to read the report.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 4, 2019

PRESS CONTACT: Barb Prine, Staff Attorney, Vermont Legal Aid
(802) 863-5620 x254

 

MONTPELIER, VT – The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules voted yesterday to approve a new rule on Gender Affirming Surgery for the Treatment of Gender Dysphoria. Vermont Legal Aid testified in support of this rule, which clarifies access to medically necessary surgery for the treatment of gender dysphoria. The new rule also removes excessive barriers to treatment for transgender and gender non-conforming Medicaid beneficiaries in Vermont.

“This vote is a victory for Medicaid beneficiaries and all Vermonters,” said Barb Prine, a Vermont Legal Aid staff attorney. She added: “It is the result of years of hard work and collaboration with clients, medical providers, Medicaid experts, and community leaders.” Vermont Legal Aid has represented transgender Vermonters seeking Medicaid coverage for gender affirming surgery since 1995.

The Office of the Health Care Advocate at Vermont Legal Aid is available for all Vermonters who need help accessing medical care. “If you have questions about access to gender affirming surgery or other access to health care issues, contact our HelpLine at 1-800-917-7787,” said Amelia Schlossberg, Communications Coordinator for the Office of the Health Care Advocate.

The Office of the Health Care Advocate (HCA) is a project of Vermont Legal Aid. The HCA provides free help to all Vermonters with questions or problems with health insurance or access to health care. The HCA works to improve Vermonters’ access to quality affordable health care through individual and systemic advocacy.

Vermont Legal Aid (VLA) is a non-profit law firm that provides legal advice and services to individuals and families throughout Vermont who are facing a civil legal problem that threatens their rights, shelter, job, health, or well-being. VLA began serving clients in 1968.

Take our survey about the civil legal problems that face low-income and vulnerable Vermonters.

Legal Services Vermont and Vermont Legal Aid want to meet with you. The nonprofit law firms want to know more about the civil legal problems facing low-income and vulnerable Vermonters. They are holding seven meetings around the state to hear from Vermonters, their community partners and supporters. 

“We want to hear from as wide a cross section of Vermonters as possible. Everyone is encouraged to participate in this process,” said Sam Abel-Palmer, Executive Director of Legal Services Vermont.

“Civil” legal problems are any legal issues that are not criminal in nature. However, the organizations do help with the legal problems of crime victims. Also, the organizations help people with expunging and sealing past criminal records.

Staff from Vermont Legal Aid and Legal Services Vermont will be at the public meetings. They will use the information gathered to help decide where to put their legal aid resources. It’s part of a statewide legal needs assessment process the organizations will use to provide civil legal help where it’s needed most. The organizations work together to help thousands of Vermonters around the state each year.

Here’s the schedule of public meetings. No registration is needed and light refreshments will be provided.

 

NEWPORT

Wednesday, October 23, 1:00-2:30 p.m.

Goodrich Library, 202 Main St., Newport

 

ST. ALBANS

Monday, October 28, 1:00-2:30 p.m.

Community College of Vermont (CCV), 142 S. Main St., St. Albans

 

BENNINGTON

Wednesday, October 30, 1:00-2:30 p.m.

Community College of Vermont (CCV), Room 152, 324 Main St., Bennington

 

RUTLAND

Wednesday, October 30, 5:30-7:00 p.m.

Community College of Vermont (CCV), Room 102, 60 West St., Rutland

 

BRATTLEBORO

Monday, November 4, 1:00-2:30 p.m.

Community College of Vermont (CCV), Room 271, 41 Harmony Place, Brattleboro          

 

MONTPELIER

Tuesday, November 5, 2:00-3:30 p.m.

Bethany UCC Church, 115 Main St., Montpelier

 

BURLINGTON

Tuesday, November 5, 7:00-8:30 p.m.

Legal Services Vermont, 274 N. Winooski Ave., Burlington

 

Please note: Visitors to Community College of Vermont should stop at the main desk for a visitor’s badge.

We are holding the Guen Gifford Advocate Training on Wednesday, October 23, 2019, at the Barre Civic Center. Learn more!

Unless it is blocked by the courts, the United States government will change how it makes “public charge” decisions starting October 15, 2019. “Public charge” or the “public charge test” is used by immigration officials to decide whether a person can enter the United States or get a green card. Learn some important facts on our legal help website

The Housing Discrimination Law Project (HDLP) at Vermont Legal Aid works to stop housing discrimination and to protect Vermonters' right to choose where they live. The project recently updated its brochures in English and eight other languages. Staff also produced short videos in English and five other languages. Funding for the videos came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Follow this link to see them.

Vermont Health Connect Insurance Companies Ask to Raise Premium Prices;
Vermont Legal Aid’s Health Care Advocate Encourages Public Comments

Press Release / May 13, 2019 - updated June 17, 2019

Contact: Mike Fisher, Chief Health Care Advocate
Vermont Legal Aid
mfisher@vtlegalaid.org
802-989-9806

MONTPELIER, VT – Today, the Green Mountain Care Board started considering whether to raise health insurance premium prices for individual and small employer plans including Vermont Health Connect plans. These plans cover nearly 80,000 Vermonters.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont asked to raise next year’s premium prices by 15.6%, on average. MVP Health Care asked to raise premium prices by 8.5% on average. The price increases vary by plan.

The Green Mountain Care Board must consider public comments when deciding the 2020 premium prices. You can tell the board what you think of the proposed prices. Visit our webpage on How the Public Can Participate (www.vtlawhelp.org/how-public-can-participate-0) to learn how to give public comments to the board. Your comments will be part of the public record.

“The Board will hear from insurance executives, actuaries and lawyers; they need to hear from you too,” said Mike Fisher, Vermont’s Chief Health Care Advocate. “Last year, 197 Vermonters submitted public comments for the Vermont Health Connect premium review process and the Green Mountain Care Board referred to these comments in their decision. We’re glad to help Vermonters understand the process, so everyone has a voice.”

The public comment period for these plans ends in late July.

Vermonters with premium subsidies may pay more or less next year. For these Vermonters, changes to how much they have to pay are mostly based on income, family size and which plan they choose during the next open enrollment.

If you have questions about your health insurance, health care access, or about how you can give a public comment, contact the Office of the Health Care Advocate at 1-800-917-7787.

The Office of the Health Care Advocate (HCA) is a project of Vermont Legal Aid. The HCA provides free help to all Vermonters with questions or problems with health insurance or access to health care. The HCA works to improve Vermonters’ access to quality affordable health care through individual and systemic advocacy.

Vermont Legal Aid (VLA) is a non-profit law firm that provides legal advice and services to individuals and families throughout Vermont who are facing a civil legal problem that threatens their rights, shelter, job, health, or well-being. VLA began serving clients in 1968.

Vermont Legal Aid is holding free Advance Planning Workshops around the state. Seniors who qualify can meet with a lawyer and complete a simple will, a financial power of attorney and a medical advance directive. These are three important documents used for looking ahead and planning for the future.

To qualify for these workshops, you must be 60 years old or older and you must be a Vermont resident. There are also some income and asset restrictions.

Visit our legal help website to learn more about these free advance planning events.

In Vermont, approximately 1,700 eviction cases are filed every year. The number one cause of eviction is falling behind on rent. In most cases, families lose their housing, leading to increased rates of homelessness, unemployment, mental and physical illness, and financial and housing instability.

On January 16, 2019, Vermont Legal Aid released a report, Eviction in Vermont: A Closer Look, examining the problem and calling for policy solutions to reduce evictions and the deepening poverty caused by them.

This report marks the most comprehensive attempt to date to study evictions in Vermont. Its key findings are as follows:

One in 44 (2.25%) renting households had an eviction filed against them in 2016. In 70% of the cases, unpaid rent was the only issue (as opposed to violating the lease or evicting “without cause”). In cases where unpaid rent caused the eviction, the median amount of rent due was $2,000. In three-quarters of the cases, the plaintiff (landlord) had a lawyer, and the defendant (tenant) did not. Three-quarters of households that had an eviction filed against them were evicted.

In the report, the voices of tenants explain how eviction is a kind of accelerant for poverty: it comes out of poverty, and it creates even more. Research has shown that even a year after eviction, parents and children are more likely to suffer from depression, stress, and negative health outcomes than their non-evicted peers. Eviction can significantly damage a tenant’s subsequent employment, housing and credit prospects.

For landlords, evictions reflect a loss in rental income, lost time in court, and a financial cost for court and attorney fees. Evictions also cost Vermont taxpayers resources through additional burden on the court system and, when an eviction leads to homelessness, through funds needed for emergency housing and shelters. Taking a more proactive approach to prevent evictions would save money for landlords and taxpayers.

The report recommends the following policy changes to address this issue:

When a tenant falls behind on rent, provide adequate financial supports to help tenants who can maintain the tenancy long-term come current and avoid eviction. We estimate that an annual amount of $800,000 strategically invested in back rent support could cut Vermont’s eviction rate by over 50%. Once a case is filed, increase legal representation of defendants in eviction cases or make it easier for defendants to capably represent themselves. Expand and develop programs to help tenants manage their rental payments. Reduce the number of tenants who fall behind on rent by addressing the broader housing affordability crisis.

“Taken together, we believe that these recommendations would reduce Vermont’s rate of evictions and homelessness and prevent the hardships that occur for both landlords and tenants when a tenancy is terminated,” said Vermont Legal Aid Staff Attorney Jessica Radbord, who is one of the authors of the report. Follow this link to download the full report and recommendations.

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