Writing a New Chapter in Baltimore
It’s noon on a Tuesday in Baltimore, and a line is forming outside the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Pennsylvania Avenue branch. One at a time, people walk up to the end of the line, some clutching folders bulging with papers, others empty-handed. All are waiting for the clock to strike 1 p.m., when the Lawyer in the Library program will open its doors to anyone looking for advice or assistance from an attorney. Those seeking help range from veterans who can’t navigate their way through the complicated benefits system to get what’s coming to them to folks who got into trouble with the law and aren’t sure how to move forward. Some weeks, 600 or 700 people show up.
“Just five to twenty minutes of a lawyer’s time can literally change someone’s life,” says Amy Petkovsek, the Legal Aid Society lawyer who runs the program.
Lawyer in the Library is staffed by more than 200 volunteers, including local lawyers doing pro bono work and law students. Advice is free for everyone. The program started in 2015 and quickly became a lifeline.
One woman used Lawyer in the Library to escape an abusive husband. “Because she knew the lawyers would be in the library, she asked his permission to come that day,” Petkovsek says. “Now the woman is safely in a shelter program.”
About 60 percent of what the lawyers see is related to expunging criminal records—removing old, minor offenses, for example, or excising charges that were filed but for which the person was never convicted.
“In many cases, we can clear a person’s entire record,” Petkovsek told On the Record, a public radio show.
Shannon Powell had a record going back to 1986. “It looks kinda bad,” she admits, “but that’s not me.” People didn’t want to hire her, she says, until Lawyer in the Library helped clear her slate. “Now I have a job where I work with 12 homeless women,” she says proudly. “When I see them, it gives me the ability to give them the same love that Miss Amy gave me the day I walked into that library.”
Enoch Pratt—named for the library system’s first benefactor—has long been a beloved institution in a city
ravaged by some of the highest rates of violent crime in the nation.
“If you go around Baltimore, nearly everyone has a Pratt story,” says Meghan Mccorkell, the library’s director of marketing and communications and its Nicest Places nominator. Some were helped by the lawyers; some can proudly say they have a job thanks to Pratt’s award-winning Mobile Job Center. It’s a modern twist on the old bookmobile: a bus that travels around the city equipped with computer terminals and specially trained workforce librarians.
Still others are grateful for the new Social Worker in the Library program, which functions like the lawyer program. Mccorkell shared the story of a social worker who helped a man learn to read—and the heartwarming outcome. One day the man stood up during a group session and told everyone he was able to pay a bill on time because he could read what it said. Then he read aloud from a children’s book. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. “These stories happen every day inside the Pratt Library,” Mccorkell says.
Of course, you can still check out books at Enoch Pratt. But as of this year, if you’re late returning them, you won’t have to pay an overdue fine. Now that’s nice.
Enoch Pratt is something of a community center, but books are its beating heart.