In Furtherance of Justice | Wiping the Slate Clean
Rubicon's legal team helps our participants with a wide variety of legal assistance to equip them to remove barriers that may stand in their way of achieving their long-term goals. This question and answer series with Rubicon's staff attorneys explores the many intersections between breaking the cycle of poverty and the law.
This week, In Furtherance of Justice, talks to Rubicon attorney, Sarah Williams, about Clean Slate Day 2017.
Wiping the Slate Clean
What is Clean Slate Day?
Clean Slate events help people with criminal records access expungements and felony reductions which in turn remove barriers to employment and housing. Rubicon has been involved in organizing Clean Slate events in Contra Costa County since 2011. What was special about the last two Clean Slate Days, including the most recent one held this past April, was that we were actually able to convene court. Unlike past events where we've met with people and explained their rights and the process of getting records expunged, we now have an official court proceeding with a judge granting expungements.
In 2017, we also served more people than ever; 320 people had more than 1,000 cases expunged. To put it in perspective, more cases were cleared in a single day than what is typical for a whole year. To go through the process as an individual, the process can take anywhere from six to nine months.
What does it mean to have a record expunged?
Having your record expunged gives you the legal right to say, “No,” when asked if you have a criminal background on a job or housing application. In California, an expungement does not take the conviction off the record, but it really clears the way for people with conviction histories to find employment and housing.
In California expungement is available to a lot of cases. As long as the sentence for a conviction does not include state prison, it is eligible for expungement. As our state is moving further away from sending people to prison and toward shorter sentences in county jail, more people will be eligible for this life-changing remedy.
What role do community partnerships play in pulling off an event of this scale?
A lot of credit goes to Judge Diana Becton who was the person who initially approached the Public Defender’s office in 2016 to make our Clean Slate events more than information sessions. She wanted to do something in conjunction with her church at Easter, and actually hold court. These are inspirational events for both the participants and the community.
The District Attorney’s office was also involved in approving cases to be expunged. Rubicon also played a big role in the planning for the event because we actually have a great deal of experience running Clean Slate events. We also worked closely with the county Reentry Coordinator, Bay Area Legal Aid, Safe Return Project, and the Reentry Success Center. The Public Defender’s office was responsible for the lion’s share of the work, and really went into overdrive to approve hundreds of cases to present to the District Attorney.
What do Rubicon attorneys do for Clean Slate Day?
We help with logistics, we get the word out about the event, and this year we helped bring in the Department of Child Support Services as a partner to have somebody to check people's cases and answer questions. Of course, a lot of our responsibility is just making sure that our Rubicon participants are able to access the services. I think it’s really helpful for our participants to have people actively thinking about legal remedies that will help them find stable employment, and housing. We are also there on the day of the event to support our participants and to be available to provide information and referrals for the many walk-ins who come to the event.
What impact does having their record expunged have on Rubicon participants?
Having cases expunged opens up employment and housing doors, but it can also make people feel better, freer. It is a really concrete way that they can move away from their past mistakes and finally feel that they have been forgiven. Our participants say all the time that they did their time and want to move on, but in reality that's not what happens. There are all these collateral consequences to having a conviction; being kept out of employment, being kept out of housing, not being able to go to school. I think, too, that standing in front of the judge, and hearing her say, " Congratulations, good job," as opposed to sentencing you to jail - that's priceless. It's like official forgiveness.
Events like Clean Slate Day are so important because they help people get a second chance without having to jump through a million hoops. Even if you're trying to do everything right, you just encounter roadblock after roadblock. An event like Clean Slate can allow so many more people to access this remedy that can positively change their lives. Expungement doesn't change the past or lessen the consequences of a crime, it is about making it easier to reintegrate into society.
One Rubicon participant actually had nine different cases expunged at the event. He had an extensive RAP sheet and had been getting in trouble for over 15 years. But now he is in recovery and is on the right track. He came with a whole cheering section and sat through the entire day, watching and supporting as the people around him have their convictions expunged and their felonies reduced. With these expungements he is well on his way to moving beyond his past mistakes and being able to work full-time to support his family.
Could changes at the federal level impact future Clean Slate Days?
Most criminal law is state law, and while there are federal prisons and crimes, it's not that common. California has really been moving in the right direction toward criminal justice reform with legislation like AB 109 and Prop 47, which took a bunch of low level felonies and reclassified them as misdemeanor, Prop 57 that helps people get out of prison faster. I actually think that as we see more regressive action at the federal level, we will see a bigger push toward reform and social justice at the state level.