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Spotlight on pro bono: Nikki Carrion and her work with CLAIM

By Sandra Crawford, ISBA Delivery of Legal Services Committee

Under the topic of “what are they doing now”, this month’s Delivery of Legal Services Committee newsletter catches up with past chair, E. Nicole Carrion, known to all as Nikki (Chair 2010-2011). Since terming-off this committee Nikki, in addition to opening her solo practice in Edwardsville, Illinois, has become of-counsel to Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM). Nikki is the downstate staff attorney for CLAIM responsible for visiting regional female correctional facilities where she provides advice, education, and legal services on all types of family law and domestic violence matters to incarcerated mothers, their children, and their children’s guardians. In her of-counsel role Nikki collaborates with other agencies and social service organizations to promote and improve the criminal justice system and the response to the issues faced by incarcerated mothers and their children. CLAIM’s mission is to provide legal and educational services which help maintain the bonds between imprisoned mothers and their children. In her work for CLAIM, Nikki advocates for policies and programs that benefit families of imprisoned mother and programs which will reduce future incarceration of women and girls. Additional information about CLAIM and the services it provides can be found at www.claim-il.org.

Some interesting facts which can be found on CLAIM’s website: 

  • More than 16,000 women go to jail annually in Cook County and about 82% are mothers;
  • About 80% of women detained in Cook County are charged with non-violent crimes;
  • Only 1.8% of the women admitted to Illinois prisons in 2008 were classified as high security risk.

CLAIM is a not-for-profit agency founded in 1985 and has grown from a one-woman office to a dependable source of legal aid for women prisoners and their families. CLAIM’s founder is Gail T. Smith. CLAIM’s personnel and programs now include: two volunteer lawyer programs, a staff of four (two of whom are former prisoners) and an active and diverse Board of Directors. CLAIM is the only agency in Illinois which focuses on legal aid and advocacy to benefit women prisoners and their children. 

On June 14, 2013, Gail was honored in a special White House ceremony as a Children of Incarcerated Parents Initiative Champion of Change.  Each week, the White House invites Americans who are doing extraordinary work in their communities to a “Champions of Change” ceremony to recognize their accomplishments and ideas. According to a recent White House press release, the individuals who work with the Initiative “have worked on the front line to ensure that innocent children, nearly two million of whom have a parent who is incarcerated, do not suffer as a consequence of adult decisions. The Champions… have helped scores of children and their families by minimizing the potential negative impacts of having a parent who is incarcerated, including, for example, financial instability, changes in housing, and isolation due to stigma.”  

In 2013, CLAIM also worked on legislation which would eliminate the charge of felony prostitution in Illinois. Nikki has been actively involved in that work and has the following to say on this issue: “Illinoisis one of the few states in the U.S. that makes a second offense of prostitution eligible for a felony upgrade. Meanwhile, a solicitation offense for customers ("johns") doesn't carry a felony upgrade. Thus, the current law tends to disproportionately impact women. And we know from statistics and personal stories that most crimes committed by women including prostitution are highly linked to substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health issues or some other trauma in these women's lives. We also know that women released from Illinois state prison with sex offenses are likely to be rearrested more than any other group of offenders. Senate Bill 1872 would eliminate the felony eligibility upgrade for these offenses which means that we can keep more women with non-violent offenses out of prison and in the community where they still have the opportunity to receive services to address their underlying issues and trauma.  The legislation would also amend the Mental Health Court Treatment Act to allow a court to admit a defendant charged with prostitution into a mental health court program designed to address the trauma associated with prostitution and human trafficking.  Also, without this legislation, even if the women is somehow able or willing to leave the sex trade they still have the felony on their record that may prevent them from obtaining good housing or employment...which, in turn, may lead them back into the sex trade.  It is a vicious cycle.  Hopefully this bill, if the Governor signs it into law, will help interrupt this cycle and offer the women some hope and more opportunities for healing."  

We were glad of the opportunity to catch up with Nikki and to learn about her further efforts in the area of delivery of legal services.  We look forward to hearing more from her soon about CLAIM and about the reform in the area of felony prostitution legislation.

Posted on August 14, 2013 by Chris Bonjean
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Member Comments (2)

Congratulations, Nicki on recognition that is well deserved. This is the kind of activity that truly promotes the professionalism that many ISBA members are known for.

Thank you Carl!