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A team of paralegal students, law students and attorneys provide free legal support at PCC's CLEAR Clinic.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 03 November 2022

A community legal clinic launched two years ago with a recreational marijuana tax revenue grant has served more than 6,000 people and earned recognition from the Oregon State Bar.

Portland Community College's Community Legal & Educational Access & Referral (CLEAR) Clinic provides record and eviction expungement, an eviction legal defense program, some immigration legal services programs, and name and gender marker changes, to the public throughout Oregon.

“A big commitment of the CLEAR Clinic is we will never charge anything.

clear clinic lleni tupper introLeni Tupper, director of the CLEAR Clinic"There’s no way, even sliding-scale, even consult fees, nothing,” Leni Tupper, director of the CLEAR Clinic, told The Skanner.

For her work at the program, Tupper received the Oregon State Bar’s President's Technology & Innovation Award “for significant contributions in Oregon toward promoting respect for the rule of law, improving the quality of legal services or increasing access to justice through new technology or other innovations.”

“I’ve always been really interested in using the law as a tool for social justice, and just figuring out how exactly to do that,” Tupper said.

karla marquez introKarla Marquez Gaab
Karla Marquez Gaab, a senior-year law student and an extern at the eviction clinic, was one of four recipients of the bar’s public leadership award. Marquez Gaab assisted in CLEAR's asylum clinic for undocumented community members last spring and was honored for her work alongside three peers in creating UndocuLawNorthwest, which helps undocumented and non-citizen students achieve legal education.

“When I received my DACA work permit it was because of the clinic,” Marquez Gaab told The Skanner. “I just felt like (working in the eviction clinic) was a way of giving back but in a different role, in a different area.”

Navigating Legal Barriers 

While many law firms provide a certain number of hours worth of pro bono work, and many advocacy organizations provide free or low-cost consultations and even representation, CLEAR has filled a gap in the legal process.

“A lot of our services are services the legal community likes to imagine that people could navigate on their own,” Tupper said.

“One thing that we hear constantly at the clinic is, ‘LegalAid doesn’t do this, the ACLU doesn’t do this.’ This isn’t big fancy lawyering, it’s not litigation. It’s a simple, straightforward legal service, which means that the court has some self-help legal resources, and they think that people are able to navigate it on their own. But the reality that we see from thousands of people is that people are not actually able to navigate the process on their own, and so they come to us and we’re able to assist them with that process.”

clear clinic medPCC paralegal students serve as interns and receive practical work experience at the CLEAR Clinic.
That means paralegal and law students often have the education to assist, something that Tupper, who has a background in immigration law and is an instructor in PCC’s paralegal program, recognized just as she was trying to find ways to give her paralegal students more hands-on experience. She began to organize one-day legal clinics with limited-scope legal services.

“I’d organize a (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)) renewal clinic, where I’d get a bunch of my colleagues from the immigration law world to volunteer and do 50 people’s DACA renewals in a day,” she said. “I teamed up with the Metropolitan Public Defender community Law Division to do expungement clinics and court fines and fee waivers and those kinds of things.”

But one-off events could only reach so many people. She worked with Rakeem Washington, who was then the director for access and reentry at PCC. Washington had worked with a lot of formerly incarcerated students and potential students, and had insight into the dire need for criminal record expungement clinics. Together Tupper and Washington secured a Social Equity & Educational Development (SEED) Grant Fund award through the city’s Office of Community & Civic Life two years ago–one of six local organizations to do so.

“We decided to team up and apply for a grant to institutionalize and make those clinics permanent,” Tupper said.

The CLEAR Clinic model is to provide assistance and help clients navigate various legal processes while “using the amazing energy and dedication of paralegals and PCC paralegal students, as well as law students and volunteers who are willing and able to provide services that are a little bit more limited-scope in nature. So that allows us to help a lot more folks” and keep costs down, Tupper said.

“We tend to serve a lot of folks who have been historically pushed to the margins in our society – we serve a lot of the LGBTQIA+ community, we serve a lot of BIPOC folks, we serve a huge amount of immigrant and refugee and undocumented folks, just because of our immigration legal services.”

So far, CLEAR Clinic has completed nearly 5,000 criminal record expungements, 450 DACA renewals and immigration legal screenings and more than 250 name and gender marker changes. The clinic has also provided eviction legal defense to 245 people and aided 400 individuals with eviction expungements which, Tupper notes, often means clearing multiple evictions from a person’s record. In addition, The clinic has served 455 clients with deportation defense services since November 2021.

Legislative Help

A criminal record makes it extremely difficult to secure employment, housing and often education. Two recent pieces of legislation have dramatically increased the kind of impact CLEAR can make on that front: Senate Bill 397, which decreases wait times and increases eligibility for felony expungement, and SB 819, which allows those with felonies deemed non-expungeable to petition the relevant district attorney to reconsider the felonies.

“Before that, really the only option was going to the governor for a pardon,” Tupper said of SB 819. “Obviously (pardons) are few and far between, and historically governors only use their pardon power at the end of their term.”

Both bills went into effect at the beginning of the year.

“Pre-2022 it was probably 25-30% of folks who came our way who were eligible for expungement,” Tupper said.

“And now, almost everybody who walks in our door is eligible for at least something on their record to be expunged, if not everything.”

The clinic can, for example, provide letters to prospective landlords contextualizing convictions that are too recent to expunge.

“We’ll say ‘This person came into our expungement clinic, they will be eligible for expungement on this date, we don’t anticipate any issues with their expungement, we know that they’re in recovery, please consider this information when you’re making your tenancy decisions about this person,’” Tupper explained.

Similarly, when all that stands between a person and expungement are court fines and fees, the clinic has issued letters to the court explaining the person’s situation and efforts to make payments, with a request that such fees be lowered or waived.

“The fact that we have a bunch of paralegals and law students working here gives us the capacity to do things like that,” she said.

The benefit works both ways, according to Marquez Gaab.

“It’s a great opportunity to work within a program that intentionally creates a positive work environment that brings together attorneys, paralegals and law students,” she said. “Each of us has different skill sets we might be bringing. In terms of a clinic learning environment, it’s a more holistic approach to learning from other legal professionals.”

The CLEAR clinic is currently funded by the PCC Foundation, the PCC Dreamers Resource Center, a grant from the nonprofit Innovation Law Lab to support the clinic’s DACA and immigration work, a grant from the Portland Housing Bureau for the clinic’s eviction legal defense program and a grant from Measure 110 to expand the clinic’s criminal record relief program to some recovery centers, and within the clinic itself.

For more information: www.pcc.edu/clear-clinic.

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