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County program helps residents’ clean up their criminal records

on April 25, 2011

Mike H. had been waiting for half an hour to hear his name called by an intake counselor at the Rubicon Legal and Economic Service Center in Richmond. But he was in no rush.  He had been waiting for over 30 years for this; Saturday was the closest he’d ever been to getting his criminal record dismissed.

“I don’t want to be no felon anymore,” he said, “and right now, this is the best thing I can do.”

Mike, along with some 40 others, waited his turn to find out if he was eligible for a California law that cleans up criminal records. For the third time Saturday morning, Rubicon hosted a pre-screening clinic for Clean Slate, a practice that provides free legal services to people with criminal records.

Word spread fast about the pre-screenings in Richmond. At the first screening last month, only one person showed up; at the second on April 9, four made it; on Saturday, the line was out the door.

Many of the community members that came in were trying to dismiss a criminal record from years ago. Mike said he last got in trouble in the 1970s, when he was a teenager. Now in his 50s, he still worries that the mistakes he made when he was young will haunt him. Fortunately, he said, he’s been employed for 25 years at the same job. But with the rise of companies running background checks, he fears his criminal record will reveal his past and give his employers an option to let him go before he receives his retirement benefits.

“I’ve seen it happen to too many people,” he said.

Criminal background checking has become an important part of the hiring process for most employers. As a result, it’s more likely that people are denied a job or lose a job, not because of a recent involvement in crime, but because of a criminal record from long ago.

“The ‘tough on crime’ approach to criminal justice in the 1980s didn’t work and now we are dealing with the aftermath,” said Brian Hogan, a staff attorney at Rubicon Legal.

California is home to several million people with arrest, prosecution, and conviction records. One out of five Californians lives with a criminal record.

“We’ve created this system where we’ve marked people with this stamp of criminality,” Hogan said, “and the question is now what do we do with them.”

Most people with records have successfully completed their sentences, Hogan said, but still face lingering barriers to employment, housing, education, and civic participation. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit and the Federal Bonding Program, which covers insurance costs for an applicant with a record, are two incentives the federal government has created for employers to hire those with criminal records.

In California, an expungement relief law allows someone convicted of a crime to file a petition for dismissal. If a person is eligible, he or she can go to court, have the case re-opened, change the plea to “not guilty,” and have a judge dismiss the case. To qualify, the petitioner must have completed probation, paid all fines and restitution, and not currently be charged with a crime.

During the pre-screening clinic on Saturday, staff and volunteers met with individual community members one-on-one to help them determine if they are eligible for expungement.

If an individual qualifies, the pre-screening clinic then assists them in obtaining a fee-waived copy of their record of arrest and prosecution. After that, staff and volunteer attorneys will help them in preparing and filing petitions to be heard in front of a judge.

A successful expungement will not erase the criminal record, but rather the finding of guilt will be changed to a dismissal.

The petitioner then can honestly and legally answer to a question about their criminal history, with some exceptions, that they have not been convicted of that crime. What is actually stated on the record of the case is that the case was dismissed after conviction.

Tuleka, a single mother of two, was hoping her case was eligible.

“I have some things in my past that are finally catching up with me now,” she said

A nursing school student, Tuleka said she often applies for jobs that she knows she doesn’t have a chance for. A couple of weeks ago, she had applied for Home Depot. She passed the interview and a drug test, but when her background check results came back, it was game over.

She said there’s no point applying for further jobs until she gets her record cleared. “I keep on being held back from doing what I need to do,” she said.

Currently in Contra Costa, community members who want to dismiss their criminal records come through the public defenders’ office, where staffed paralegals help individuals fill out the petitions.

But Robin Lipetzky, Contra Costa County’s Public Defender, said that as of July, the office may not be able to provide that service anymore. The office is facing layoffs, and during a countywide financial crisis cuts are being considered in departments that do not provide mandatory services. She said the Clean Slate pre-screenings and court date were a one-time shot in Richmond that she doesn’t see happening again anytime soon.

“Funding at the county level is drying up,” she said, “especially at a time when people really need this.”

Lipetzky said she would hope that nonprofit groups could pick up the slack, but knows many of them in Contra Costa are not in a fit budget shape to handle the large caseloads.

The Clean Slate court date in Contra Costa, where multiple petitions will be docketed, is scheduled for June 15. The Clean Slate program will work in partnership with the Project Homeless Connect, which is facilitated by the County’s Health Services Homeless Program.

The June 15 event is a partnership of several County and regional government offices, and is being led by Assemblymember Nancy Skinner’s office, State Senator Loni Hancock’s office, and County Supervisor John Gioia’s office.

“We’re trying to increase the visibility,” Gioia said. “It’s the first time we’ve gotten support from the court and presiding judge.”

The Clean Slate work is also part of a larger reentry initiative that the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors has recently begun working on.

“I’m excited it’s been such a great partnership between the state, the county departments and the nonprofits involved,” Hogan said. “I’m glad that collectively we’re all seeing the issue of employment discrimination and criminal records as an important issue right now.”

Additional pre-screening clinics at Rubicon Legal in Richmond will be held on Saturday April 30 and Saturday May 7 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Out of the 43 total people pre-screened on Saturday, 24 met the eligibility requirements and are being sent to the Richmond Police Department to get their fee-waived record sheets. Hogan said he expects and hopes all the petitions will be granted a dismissal in court on June 15.


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