Kimberley Mansfield, the director of the De Muniz Legal Clinic. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

A remark by a kid in a juvenile detention facility planted a seed for Kimberley Mansfield.

While visiting a maximum-security juvenile detention facility with a church group years ago in Boston, she remembers an incarcerated teenager turning to her and asking, “Why do you come hang out with us?”

“They don't think that they have value to anyone on the outside,” said Mansfield.

The remark stuck with Mansfield, who was then working in theater and television, on her trajectory that included a return to Oregon, completing college and a friendship with a state Supreme Court justice.

It’s stayed with her at her current position running a unique legal clinic that meets an overlooked need.

As the director and supervising attorney for the De Muniz Legal Clinic, Mansfield heads a small Salem-based nonprofit specialized in an emerging area of law that’s become increasingly relevant as Oregon reckons with decades of mass incarceration.

People with arrests and convictions on their records face challenges in finding jobs and housing. They have trouble getting a driver’s license, dealing with debt or bankruptcy, regaining custody of their kids or applying to have charges reduced or erased from their records.

Mansfield is there to help.

“I think all lives have value, right?” said Mansfield, who has long sided with underdogs and had an interest in social justice. 

As the nonprofit reached a milestone recently of assisting 600 people since opening in 2013, Mansfield was recognized by the Marion County Bar Association with the Carson Award for service to the community for her work at the clinic.

The majority of people incarcerated in Oregon prisons are expected to be released at some point. She said that about 400 people a month are released statewide and 700 a year in Marion County alone. She said that these people will be neighbors, coworkers and parents.

As innocence work, an area of criminal law that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions, rose to mainstream awareness, Mansfield said she became aware of how lawyers can make the world more just. Her work in “reentry law” may not be known for its made-for-TV cases, but Mansfield said it’s vital to helping formerly incarcerated people succeed.

She hopes to make the approach part of the conversation around criminal justice reform.

“They’re coming into the community,” said Mansfield. “The question is, how do you want to treat your neighbors?”

Sitting in the office of the De Muniz Legal Clinic on the second floor of a building off Church Street, Mansfield, who has the polished appearance of a former television actress, explained how her path to the law wasn’t obvious.

She grew up in Forest Grove and bounced around the Seattle area, California, the East Coast and elsewhere. 

She returned to Oregon and was completing her undergraduate degree at Portland State University when she met then-state Supreme Court Justice Paul De Muniz, who was speaking at a panel at the time.

“We chatted and we really clicked on our ideas and the social justice aspects of our interests,” she said.

De Muniz recalled being impressed with how she had a “whole life” before law school working in television and the two shared a philosophy about the redemption of people.

Mansfield was applying to law school and De Muniz encouraged her to try Willamette University College of Law, where he graduated. The two stayed in touch and De Muniz mentored Mansfield while in law school and she clerked for him while he was on the court.

At the time, Oregon had seen a dramatic expansion of its prison population and policymakers were looking for ways to ease the effects.

In 2011 Marion County opened a resource center named after De Muniz to help former inmates find housing, jobs, transportation and other services.

De Muniz said that he became aware of how such services are important to public safety and helping formerly incarcerated people become good members of the community.

“It seemed that one aspect that had been overlooked when talking about reentry services was legal advice,” he said.

In 2012, as Mansfield was preparing for her final semester of law school, De Muniz approached her about opening a legal clinic to help people coming out of prison.

He said that the two shared an ambition to help people reintegrate into the community.

“I just imposed on her,” recalled De Muniz. He said she took that vision and made it a reality.

Dick Withnell, a businessman and philanthropist who serves on the board for the De Muniz Legal Clinic, said that the clinic works with the Marion County resource center and helps with problems that might require lawyers, such as landlords, credit reports or obtaining identification. He said that navigating legal bureaucracy after being incarcerated can be daunting.

“It’s like being in a foreign world almost,” he said.

On the shelf in Mansfield’s office is a picture of Kyle, who went into juvenile corrections when he was 16, with Gov. Kate Brown. Mansfield worked on his juvenile clemency petition. She said these petitions are a “monster of an undertaking” that requires comprehensive account of the juvenile’s life before the crime, as well as treatment, accomplishments and transition plan. 

Brown granted the petition, Kyle walked out of custody with Mansfield. It was his first time being in public as an adult. 

She recalled other success stories, like a woman who would have had no parenting time had she not had an attorney helping. Mansfield recalled how the woman blamed others and took no ownership of the situation. Mansfield said things became confrontational, but her client grew during the experience. 

She recalled another client, an elderly disabled veteran, whose lawyer had taken advantage of him and entered problematic pleas on his behalf. But Mansfield said she eventually got the pleadings dismissed and his money back.

Mansfield, who also works as a family lawyer, said that about 40% of the clinic’s work involves removing crimes from her clients’ records. In Oregon, people with criminal convictions can apply to the courts to have crimes removed from their records after enough time has passed and they’ve avoided reoffending.

She said that sometimes there are outright errors in their records or cases that have already been dismissed. But getting blemishes removed from her clients’ records can be complicated work even when clients are eligible. She said courts consider other offenses they may have committed as well as objections from prosecutors or changes in the law. 

“This a big issue and we think it's an access to justice issue,” said Mansfield.

Cases involving the removal of charges are rarely appealed but the clinic is preparing for a rare appeal.

Family law makes up about 35% of the clinic’s work and can include child custody, divorces and restraining orders. Another 25% concerns what Mansfield called “general civil stuff” such as landlord-tenant issues, debt, bankruptcy and others.

She said she has plans to start a veterans clinic. She’s still working out what it will focus but said there’s a “huge need.”

Despite all the help she offers, Mansfield said that while the clinic doesn’t charge for its services, it’s not free. Clients have to take ownership and responsibility of their situation and that means not flaking out on meeting and filling out big packets of paperwork she said.

“We are so far from a handout,” she said.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.