Todd Belcore, the Shriver Center’s Community Justice Lead Attorney, uses litigation, community outreach, academic works, and policy advocacy to ensure that individuals with criminal records are not unjustly denied employment or occupational licenses. Since Todd began working at the Shriver Center in September 2010, he has written for the White House blog, the Huffington Post, and Clearinghouse Review, among other publications; provided legal assistance and held workshops for well over a thousand men and women with criminal records; trained dozens of attorneys and service providers; and crafted, negotiated, testified for, and led the lobbying strategy for several significant laws or measures that create more opportunities for men and women with criminal records. He was selected as a Champion of Change by the White House's Office of Public Engagement in 2011, as the 2013 Young Lawyer of the Year for Cook County by the Illinois State Bar Association, and as the recipient of the Visionary Award from the Safer Foundation in 2013.
As the Shriver Center’s Community Justice Lead Attorney, you work on problems faced by people with a criminal record. What kind of criminal-records work do you do?
I assist men and women who have made mistakes in their past in accessing the various forms of relief available in Illinois to overcome barriers to employment, occupational licensure, and housing. That means representing people in court, in administrative proceedings, bodies like the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, and advocating on behalf of individuals before employers, governmental agencies, and landlords.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
For hundreds of thousands of men and women throughout Illinois seeking employment, no matter how educated, how qualified, or how much of an asset they may be for a position, they will be denied certain jobs—for life—simply because they have made a mistake in their past. One particular client epitomized this dilemma. He had a degree, had years of experience teaching and mentoring youth, came highly recommended but was told he would never be able to work for the schools. Fortunately, he did not accept that as an answer and sought out ways to attain his dream of being a teacher. That brought him to his local state rep for help, LaShawn Ford.
There is nothing more valuable than having other experienced advocates to bounce ideas off of and help you prepare.
Representative Ford knew of the Shriver Center, thanks to the Shriver Center’s work with him on several legislative matters previously and grew to know of my direct representation of people with records and referred his constituent to me. I met with Representative Ford’s constituent and represented him in court to obtain a Certificate of Good Conduct. The certificate is a court order that demonstrates he is fully rehabilitated and a law-abiding citizen and orders the relief of any employment barrier. I presented the certificate to the Illinois School Board, and over the course of a month I advocated for the relief of the bar that precluded the gentleman from being able to become a teacher. That advocacy was not in vain. After six months of representation in total, this gentleman was awarded the teaching license the law and individuals told him he would never get.
You participated in the Shriver Center’s Affirmative Litigation Training Program last year. What’s the biggest lesson you took from that experience?
That there is nothing more valuable than having other experienced advocates to bounce ideas off of and help you prepare; it makes everyone sharper and yields even better outcomes for the clients we are fortunate to serve. That's part of the beauty of the Shriver Center's training programs; we are increasing the pool of advocates who are experts in a range of arenas. That doesn't just assist the individual who receives the training and refines their skills; it also helps those who look to those individuals for ideas, insight, and guidance.
If you were in charge, what’s one way (other than having more funding!) that public interest legal work would be different?
In charge of what? If I were in charge of the press, I would spotlight the selfless advocacy of those in the public interest sector daily and dispel the notion that the only great attorneys are those who make a lot of money. If I were President, I would forgive loans for those who commit seven years of sacrifice to service and provide tax breaks thereafter so that poverty lawyers can take vacations, attend destination weddings, and do more of things in life that everyday people do and enjoy, too. That would significantly decrease burnout and likely significantly increase the pool of people who follow their hearts and pursue this work because they know they are not surrendering them—their elderly loved ones and their children—to a life of economic hardship.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
Fantasy football. :-)
For more from Todd Belcore, see:
A King's Blueprint for Change, 48 Clearinghouse Review 118 (Sept.-Oct. 2014).
People with Criminal Records: Resisting Practices that Undermine Self-Sufficiency, Public Safety, and Balanced Budgets, 46 Clearinghouse Review 435 (Jan.-Feb. 2013).