The law of second chances
Having a criminal record means being shut out of society. San Jose State’s Record Clearance Project helps ex-offenders move beyond the past and reclaim their futures.
Susan Navarrette remembers the anxiety she felt having to explain her past to a room full of executives. To become a bonded accountant, her company needed to do a background check. “It was awkward, standing in the vice president’s conference room with the executives in their three-piece suits. I had to go in front of the board members and tell them that I had made some bad choices and that I was in recovery,” she says.
More than 65 million American adults have a criminal record. One in four adult Californians have an arrest or conviction record on file with the state. Having served their sentences, many ex-offenders want to move on, but the mark on their records anchors them to the past.
Having a record often means not having access to basic services such as housing, food stamps and public assistance. The biggest obstacle for ex-offenders: getting a job. As a result of the limited job opportunities available to ex-offenders, 10 percent of ex-offenders become homeless, 70 to 90 percent experience unemployment, and 66 percent offend again within the first three years.
“They’ve served their sentence, but do we give them a chance to get over it?” asks Peggy Stevenson, attorney and lecturer in San Jose State’s justice studies department “Are we as a society going to say, ‘No, you don’t get a second chance, even if the mark against you happened 10 or 20 years ago?’”
In her previous career advocating for low-wage worker’s rights, Stevenson heard a common complaint: “I can’t get a job because I have a record.” Now, RCP clients say: “I’m a person, not a rap sheet.”
In 2008, Stevenson created the Record Clearance Project (RCP) to advocate for low-income individuals with criminal records, assisted by San Jose State undergrads enrolled in a two-course program, visiting law students and pro-bono attorneys. On behalf of its clients, RCP petitions judges to expunge or dismiss convictions after sentences have been served and reduce eligible felonies to misdemeanors. In a courtroom, petition in hand, the client indicates the steps he or she has taken to make responsible choices—from being in a recovery program or being a sponsor or getting involved at church.
Seventy-five percent of the RCP clients have convictions more than 10 years old and 37 percent are more than 20 years old. Attorneys can charge thousands of dollars for clearing convictions, which means many people are priced out of removing the label of “criminal.” Some are unaware that they’re even eligible to have their records expunged because of the law’s lack of clarity. And others are unable to follow complex filing procedures. This is where the legal assistance RCP provides is crucial.
RCP students first learn about legal analysis and research. They learn how to read a rap sheet. In partnership with Santa Clara University School of Law, RCP students then participate in a moot court, a simulation where they demonstrate their research and writing skills and hone their public speaking ability. During the process, RCP students must establish trust with clients, who are often older than they are. That connection changes lives—for the students and the clients.
“I had never interviewed anyone before I took the RCP courses,” says Francisco Javier De La Torre, ’12 Justice Studies, tenting his hands in front of him. “I was just as nervous as the clients. They’re disclosing private information and they’re reluctant to sit down with a student.”
De La Torre recalls one client in particular who was “uncomfortable” with the interview process, although she had successfully completed a 12-step program for drug abuse, served as a sponsor for others in the program, and became involved in church and community service. De La Torre knows to reserve judgment of the client sitting across from him. Basic respect is a cornerstone concept of the RCP. He guides his clients through their rap sheets, determining which convictions are eligible for dismissal. After he collects enough information, De La Torre will step away to review his recommendations with one of the four pro bono attorneys who are there for backup. The possibility of a cleared record—and a new future—moves one step closer to becoming a reality if De La Torre returns from the consultation with the news: “We can help you.”
“In the majority of courses I took, I got this feeling of ‘law enforcement,’” he says. “But after taking the RCP courses, I began to see the other side of law. I saw how I could use the law to help people.”
The first college graduate in his family, De La Torre’s involvement with RCP affected his own career choices. In 2012, when he told his parents that he wanted to pursue a law degree to help at-risk youths, his parents’ jaws dropped, says De La Torre, laughing. “They said, ‘law school?’”
But what happens when opportunities present themselves to someone with a criminal record—like Susan Navarrette? The transparency of a person’s legal missteps is a matter of public record for the 90 percent of employers who do background checks. The Internet, too, provides more personal information than most people realize. Ex-offenders often feel the dread of wondering if their past crimes will resurface.
Navarrette pulled through the “uncomfortable” review with executives at her company, and she became a bonded accountant. Still, her confession in front of the board changed things. As an accountant, she knew her work was being scrutinized more than others, she says. When she heard about the RCP by word of mouth, she knew the program could help.
“He was my angel,” she says of Nick Argano, the RCP student who assisted her. “He was kind enough to do the interview by phone because of the location of my job.” Distance factored into Navarrette’s case, but it didn’t stop her from making the necessary trip to meet Argano in person. Navarrette remembers that moment: “When we met, we embraced.”
Working with RCP to clear her record wasn’t an easy experience for Navarrette. Explaining the unsavory parts of her past felt like a repeat of her boardroom confession.
“Going through it, I didn’t feel good,” Navarrette says, her voice thick with discomfort. “I had to share why I did what I did with Nick—what the crimes were and where I was at that time. I was ashamed. I cried. I was embarrassed of the things I had done.”
Her “angel,” however, didn’t let her down.
“Nick never judged me. He had a compassionate spirit in him,” says Navarrette. “It made me grateful that these individuals provide this service for others.”
Navarrette says, “I carried that guilt and shame for all these years. Here I am coming up on 26 years of sobriety and it’s still a part of me.” Her cleared record is not as much about making up for lost time as it is recognizing the limitless possibilities for her future.
“Working with the RCP gave closure to my past. I have no guilt and no shame now,” she says. “A weight has been lifted from my life. I walked out of the court a free woman.”