Elissa Lasserre, a criminal defense lawyer for indigent defendants, founded New Beginnings Law Center in 2015. After years of watching people’s lives negatively impacted—even entirely defined—by prior involvement in the criminal justice system, Lasserre decided to focus her efforts on helping clients assess and redefine their lives in order to maximize their chances of success. NBLC’s mission is to empower and transform the lives of those who are burdened by a criminal record and to provide a safety net for those at risk of re-entering the criminal justice system.

Record Clearing Program

NBLC’s fundamental program is its Record Clearing Program. It uses strategic legal and policy tools to reduce involvement in the criminal justice system and remove barriers to employment and civic participation for people with criminal records. The program begins with a client intake procedure consisting of a criminal history evaluation and needs assessment. Evaluation of the criminal history guides NBLC’s legal advocacy strategy. The needs assessment addresses the characteristics, traits, problems, or issues that directly relate to the client’s likelihood to re-offend. It provides insight into the client’s “wellness,” which NBLC defines as having five dimensions: physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and intellectual.

While not explicitly referring to itself as part of the “integrative law” movement, which recognizes the importance of other disciplines in fully addressing a person’s needs around what is too often narrowly conceived as just a legal problem, NBLC does refer to itself as a “socio-legal” operation, combining legal advocacy and social work. [Editor’s Note: You can read more about integrative law in my portrait of three Marin practitioners from the September 2017 issue.] NBLC’s experience has shown that when one of these five wellness dimensions is out of balance, the whole person is out of balance and the likelihood of recidivist behavior increases. Through partnerships and collaboration with other social service organizations, NBLC addresses the out of balance dimension. These partnerships are critical for the client’s success.

The program serves three segments of the community: 1) the full-fee client, at a rate lower than the private sector; 2) the low- to moderate-income client, on a sliding fee scale; and 3) the client with little to no means, on a pro bono basis through funded NBLC projects.

Community Outreach Projects

NBLC believes that community outreach is essential to providing equal access to justice. It reaches out to the most vulnerable in the community at-risk of re-entering the criminal justice system: the homeless, the undocumented/non-U.S. citizen, those suffering from addiction and mental health disorders, and those who are denied equal access to quality independent legal advocacy due to inability to pay legal fees.

Homeless Project

More susceptible to violence and health problems than those with housing, the homeless are often marginalized not just by society but by the justice system. This marginalization is particularly problematic because more often than not, the homeless have been involved in the criminal justice system, primarily for lifestyle crimes such as unlawful lodging, being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and theft of basic necessities of life. Addressing the issue of homelessness is complicated and requires collaboration and effort among the community, the justice system, law enforcement, social service agencies and mental health and substance abuse professionals.

Downtown Streets Team (“DST”) is a nonprofit in Marin County that serves the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless. [Editor’s Note: The Marin Lawyer profiled DST in its November 2018 issue on homelessness and mental health.] Their ultimate goal is to transition their “team members” into employment because having a job restores hope and opens the door to other opportunities. However, having a criminal record creates a barrier to employment and the many other opportunities available to those with no criminal record.

Begun in 2016, NBLC’s homeless project cleans up the criminal records of its DST’s team members and works collaboratively with DST to keep team members from re-entering the criminal justice system.

Pro Bono Criminal Record Clearing Project

A 2009-2012 study funded by the Marin Community Foundation found that more than 7 out of 10 of Marin County’s poorest residents experiencing a legal problem do not receive individualized legal assistance. The massive need of low-income Marin residents for legal assistance simply overwhelms the perpetually under-resourced Marin legal service providers. NBLC’s criminal record clearing project will soon provide outreach clinics to low income Marin County residents. These clinics will be in partnership with Legal Aid of Marin and will be held in conjunction with Community Court held at St. Vincent De Paul’s once per month.

Immigrant Project

Currently in development with the Canal Alliance and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the Immigrant Project will address the post-conviction needs of our immigrant community. Those without U.S citizenship may suffer harsher sanctions for involvement in the criminal justice system, including permanent removal from their families and a country that promised a better and safer life. For noncitizens, vacating an unconstitutional conviction and/or reducing felony convictions to misdemeanor convictions can be a powerful way to eliminate certain grounds of deportability, and can open up eligibility for improved immigration status or benefits.

Opportunities to Help

Although NBLC receives some fees for service, they are minimal. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit, NBLC relies primarily on grants and donations. It is a young nonprofit with many needs and could use your help, whether via donating, volunteering or partnering. Contact them at 415.459.2000 or via email at contact@nblawcenter.org to make a difference in someone’s life!