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The 25-year-old St. Paul woman has big dreams for her future, but she can’t seem to first escape her past mistakes.

She’s repeatedly been denied housing requests and job applications at major Minnesota companies because of a string of misdemeanor convictions from a few years ago.

“I’ve gotten a little defeated,” said the single mother of three.

That’s why she’s hoping for a second chance with the help of law students at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law’s new Re-Entry Clinic, which is providing free legal services, such as working to expunge the woman’s criminal history.

“It would mean I’d finally be able to put the past mistakes behind me and actually move forward and be able to provide for my children,” said the woman, who asked not to be named to prevent denting future job and housing applications. “I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize my kids.”

The Re-Entry Clinic started this year after receiving a $145,000 grant from the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundations — filling in a gap in providing free legal aid to people after prison or those with criminal records who never had to serve time.

Over the past five years, the foundation has awarded a growing amount of money to organizations focused on criminal justice reform, dedicating nearly $300,000 this year, including in two grants announced in August.

“We really see these as issues of equity,” said Eric Jolly, CEO of the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundations, Minnesota’s largest community foundation. “We want to put people on track for successful lives.”

The second grant, which totals $40,000, is funding SEEN, a portrait and poetry project started this summer by We Are All Criminals. The local nonprofit is partnering with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and state Department of Corrections to collect portraits, audio and video of Minnesotans in prison facilities — from Stillwater to Shakopee. Public exhibits will take place this month and in October (go to weareallcriminals.org for details).

“The St. Paul and Minnesota Foundations have taken a stand — that your voices matter,” said Emily Baxter, executive director of We Are All Criminals. “It reminds us all that this issue is urgent and it’s in our backyard. This isn’t just about numbers; it’s about human beings.”

Service fills a gap

While many nonprofits and organizations help people with legal services in prison or help connect them to services including housing or job placement afterward, Jon Geffen saw a gap: free legal help to people after prison or to people with a criminal record who faced other penalties besides serving time.

“Nobody had a place to refer cases … there is a dire need for these services,” said Geffen, who teaches at Mitchell Hamline and is the director of the new Re-Entry Clinic. “Allowing people a second chance and not perpetually punishing them helps not just them but all of us.”

Earlier this year, he and his students started helping about eight clients — from expunging a record to reunifying a family.

Now, the grant from the foundations is helping create the clinic, funding Geffen’s role as its full-time director and helping the clinic take on more, larger-scale cases, aiming to work with 100 people a year.

Law students meet with clients, draft pleadings and will represent clients in court. They also partner with local nonprofits to provide services, including mentoring or job placement. The goal: to prevent people from losing housing or job opportunities, and therefore reduce the rate of recidivism. Minnesota’s recidivism rate is about 37%, defined as the rate of returning to incarceration for a new offense within three years.

On a recent afternoon, Cat Rios-Keating, a 31-year-old second-year law student, sat down with her first client, the 25-year-old woman from St. Paul. Rios-Keating asked her about her criminal record from a few years ago, including a disorderly conduct conviction, a restraining order violation and receiving stolen property from an ex-boyfriend at a store.

Years after those incidents, the woman said she’s stayed out of trouble with the law, broken up with the boyfriend and has been attending church and school, with aspirations of someday working as a nurse practitioner. But in the meantime, she’s been repeatedly rejected for housing and jobs because of her past.

“I can’t imagine how frustrating that would be,” Rios-Keating told her.

A disabled man with a drug offense from years ago was also rejected for housing. A middle-aged woman lost her job after a domestic offense. They’re all looking for second chances, too, to start anew.

“With mass incarceration, we’re seeing the percentage of the incarcerated go through the roof,” Geffen said. “We’re trying to address some of these wrongs.”

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141