Hundreds of people filled the pews and halls at North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church on a recent Saturday afternoon. They weren’t there for a sermon, but they were seeking a kind of salvation: the cleaning of their criminal records.
The church was the site of the Contra Costa County Office of the Public Defender’s first “Clean Slate Day” in North Richmond. With over 300 attendees, the North Richmond event, held on October 15, was one of the county’s most well-attended Clean Slate days to date.
Clean Slate events in Contra Costa offer residents with criminal records or traffic violations guidance on how to have convictions dismissed or reduced and assistance accessing housing, employment and voter registration.
“We’ve been wanting to have an event in North Richmond for a while,” said Ellen McDonnell, attorney and coordinator of the reentry program at the Public Defender’s office. The event was hosted in North Richmond in response to community feedback about improving access for residents who could not travel to other parts of Richmond, she said, adding that “the turnout absolutely exceeded our expectations.”
Lawrence Robinson, a community engagement organizer with the Safe Return Project, a Richmond-based organization dedicated to improving support for people returning from incarceration, said that the event also drew people from beyond North Richmond.
“Today there are people here from Central, Southside, every area of Richmond,” said Robinson. “It lays to rest the myth that people will not cross neighborhood boundaries to get the services they need.”
Ernest Hayes Jr., who grew up in North Richmond and said he’s been homeless since age 12, said he made bad choices in the past but has learned from his mistakes. He hopes to have a 2006 felony for drug sales and gang enhancement expunged or reduced to a misdemeanor.
Hayes, a father of five, said he’s motivated to clear his record “to get my life back and open up doors for my kids, so I can provide a better opportunity for them.”
Contra Costa County Reentry Coordinator Donté Blue said it’s important that records reflect when a person has changed and moved beyond a criminal past.
“In terms of collateral consequences, these things follow people for their whole lives,” Blue said, “and sometimes it’s one or two things they did when they were much younger.”
Even after an individual’s convictions are reduced or expunged, the person may still face housing or job discrimination and need legal help to fight it, said Ann Surapruik, one of several attorneys from Bay Area Legal Aid who offered legal advice at the event.
Surapruik also explained that traffic fines can start a vicious cycle. If someone’s license is suspended because they can’t afford a fine, then they either can’t get to work or must drive on a suspended license, risking another misdemeanor. Attorneys from Bay Area Legal Aid spoke with over 100 attendees who needed assistance with traffic violations.
The Public Defender’s office offered guidance on sealing juvenile records, too, as such records can affect everything from college acceptance to employment years down the line, said the office’s Reentry Fellow, attorney Raul Arroyo-Mendoza.
Clean Slate Day attendees had a chance to register to vote, as well. McDonnell said many people believe their criminal record disqualifies them from voting, but that only people imprisoned or on parole for a felony are barred from voting in California. Voting rights for people with criminal records were further protected after AB 2466, signed into law on September 28, codified an August First District Court of Appeals move that allowed low-level felony offenders under community supervision to vote.
Tamisha Walker, Executive Director of Safe Return, said she registered about 20 people to vote at the North Richmond event.
McDonnell said the Public Defender’s Clean Slate unit has been able to greatly expand its operations thanks to funds made available by the passage of Proposition 47 in 2014, which reduced certain drug possession and theft felonies to misdemeanors and mandated that the resulting prison savings be invested in prevention programs.
The unit—once composed of a single legal assistant—now has two legal assistants, three clerks and an attorney, Jeffrey Landau, who devotes half his time to the project.
One of the new clerks is paralegal William Edwards, who joined the unit in May and served as chief organizer of the North Richmond event.
An Oakland native who now lives in North Richmond, Edwards has local ties and deep insight into the criminal justice system, having spent 13 years in prison.
“Having your record hinder you is not fair, especially when so many people make mistakes when they’re young, or ignorant, or unaware of the consequences, long-term consequences, that those decisions will make,” he said.
The Clean Slate unit of the Contra Costa County Office of the Public Defender can be reached by phone at (925) 335-8150 or by email at email@example.com.