From March 16-20, eight Columbia Law students visited San José State University to assist the College of Applied Sciences and Arts Justice Studies department’s Records Clearance Project during their spring break. The students are the fourth group that has opted to use their spring break from Columbia Law School to help Santa Clara residents who want to expunge their records.
During the week, the law students worked with SJSU undergraduate students to interview eight clients, prepare petitions to have their records expunged and provided a rap sheet analysis of paths to expungement to 19 women in Elmwood County Jail.
Each law student was partnered with an SJSU undergraduate student for a week of intense work on the project.
“It’s been a great week and it’s been fun for me even though it has been a ton of work,” said Peggy Stevenson, the founder and director of the Records Clearance Project.
Since 2008, Record Clearance Project students and volunteers have provided more than 32,000 hours of service, not including the time put in for the Spring 2015 semester. According to the team’s estimates the market value of RCP services is 10 times the actual cost to run the program.
As of March 2015, the Records Clearance Project volunteers and students have prepared 823 petitions for 242 clients since the start of the program, with 99 percent of the convictions expunged and 94 percent of eligible felonies reduced to misdemeanors.
With luggage filling the corners of the room just before some of the law students flew home on the last day of their spring break, Stevenson asked them for feedback on the week’s work.
“Help us see what worked well and help us see what didn’t,” she said.
Preetha Reddy said she thought the activities were well timed to give them a sense that they had started and completed a project in the short time they had at SJSU.
“It was a good balance of being here, working along and with partners,” she said. “We did a lot of work, but it was well-timed and organized.”
She said that working on preparing petitions for future court hearings and also working with the women in the jail offered the chance to see clients of the Record Clearance Project as they neared the end of their journey while seeing others just beginning their journey.
“We got more than we gave,” Mindy Lin said. “We learned so much…I feel like we could do more.”
Some of the law students commented on how much the undergraduate students knew about the process of expungement while they were learning it on the spot.
“I was really impressed with how much we fit into five days,” Josh Dell said. “It’s more than in two weeks of law school…I lucked out that my client was very forth coming and really deserving.”
All the law students said they felt that their clients were deserving and working to change their lives for the better.
“I learned a lot about other people’s stories and wanting a new life,” Wendy Ren said, noting that her parents were skeptical that someone who had committed a crime would want to start a new life. “I didn’t know until I went through the process. It is a turning point for me as well.”
Some of the law students felt the same way.
“When you look at a client on paper, it’s just work,” Lin said. “It seems like it’s not that bad – it should be straight forward. But it’s not just legal. It (affects) marriages, families and self-esteem.”
The full list of Columbia Law students who participated in the alternative spring break at SJSU includes: