Office of the Vermont Attorney General

Vermonter of the Month: Mairead O’Reilly

January 31, 2020

Our January Vermonter of the Month, Mairead O’Reilly, came to Vermont in 2016 as the Vermont Poverty Law Fellow. After attending college and law school in southern New England, Mairead headed north and has stayed in Vermont due to the state’s values grounded in a progressive approach to justice and what she calls “human-centered politics.”

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.

Mairead O'Reilly and TJ Donovan at Vermont Legal Aid

Mairead O'Reilly at Vermont Legal Aid

Last modified: February 21, 2020