‘A chain that doesn’t let go’: San Jose State helps expunge criminal records
Diana Carreras is a mentor with San Jose State University's Record Clearance Project. She helps connect recently-released inmates to sober living housing, food and employment programs. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    After being raped and kicked out of her parents house at the age of 13, Diana Carreras slept behind dumpsters or underneath friends’ beds trying to make it to her high school classes.

    She managed to survive the elements of San Jose streets until her junior year of high school. She was kidnapped and forced into human trafficking—an abuse she described as gruesome, filled with “buckets of blood.” She was able to escape after someone who paid her for sex helped, but by the time she got to her 20s, she had endured enough trauma to last a lifetime. She turned to drugs such as PCP to escape the pain, a Band-Aid solution that landed her in jail four times.

    But Carreras said it wasn’t the drugs, abuse or jail stints that kept her shackled—it was her criminal record. She couldn’t get a job or a house on her own, even after being sober for more than 30 years. Once her criminal record was expunged in March 2018, at the age of 60, she finally felt free.

    “Our records hold us back. It’s like a chain that doesn’t let go,” Carreras told San José Spotlight. “You are just dragging it with you through life.”

    Carreras is one of the hundreds of people able to get her drug convictions dismissed with the help of San Jose State University’s Record Clearance Project (RCP). Started in 2008 by lawyer Peggy Stevenson, the RCP offers services including mentoring and record clearance for those previously incarcerated who want to turn their life around. Since then, the team and its capabilities have doubled. New laws have made record clearance more accessible. Additional grants have allowed Stevenson to hire more experts and provide additional supportive services.

    A criminal record makes it harder to successfully reintegrate into society, even if an individual has transformed their life. Nearly 9 in 10 employers use criminal background checks; so do 4 in 5 landlords, and 3 in 5 colleges and universities.

    Since getting her record cleared four years ago, Carreras said her life has turned around. She fulfilled a childhood dream to work at San Jose State University and is now one of four mentors at the RCP who helps connect recently-released inmates to sober living housing, food, employment programs and even new clothes. Clients receive legal advice from lawyers and trained undergraduate students to expunge their records—which can dismiss convictions, reduce felonies to misdemeanors and even seal their records if related to drug diversions, sex trafficking, cannabis convictions or juvenile offenses.

    Anyone can be an RCP client as long as they were formerly incarcerated in California. Those with more serious sentences who do not qualify for record clearance or reductions in sentencing can get a certificate of rehabilitation. Students help clients after taking an introduction class on expungement law.

    The RCP also teaches clients how to apply for jobs online, navigate apps like Uber and find other services.

    “So many of our clients’ convictions are related to alcohol and drug abuse, as a consequence of trauma. When a person is able to get control of their addiction, they stop getting in trouble with the law. Yet conviction histories follow people even after decades of sobriety,” Stevenson told San José Spotlight. “Getting rid of that record and allowing people to move forward and be productive is the way to safety.”

    A portrait of Diana Carreras hangs in her office to help other clients feel comfortable sharing their stories. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    First of its kind

    The program is the only one in the country that teaches undergraduate students the legal skills to clear people’s criminal records, Stevenson said. That’s how Jesse Mejia, assistant program manager for mentoring and legal services, got his start.

    “It transforms the lives of students and clients alike,” Mejia told San José Spotlight. “As a student, being able to assist the clients and seeing the impact that it has on their lives, it’s really eye opening and humanizing.”

    Each semester, the RCP team helps 15-20 individuals clear their records. Sometimes it’s as simple as filling in the proper paperwork. Other times it requires a court date and judge’s discretion to clear or conceal their rap sheet.

    And with newly-passed state laws, it’s even easier for some residents.

    “The laws (for expungement) just have been getting better and better, or more protective of people who have made past mistakes and moved on to new futures,” Stevenson said.

    SB 731, signed last week by Gov. Gavin Newsom, significantly expands automatic record sealing eligibility for people who served time in prison. People with violent, serious felony records like murder, kidnapping or rape would not qualify—but they could, for the first time, petition to have their records sealed. It means all ex-offenders, except registered sex offenders, are now eligible for some relief.

    State Sen. Scott Weiner’s SB 1106 was also signed by Newsom last week. This new law makes it clear that people can get their convictions dismissed even if they owe victim restitution. This allows them to land a job, thereby enabling them to pay restitution.

    Stevenson said data shows people with a history of convictions who have not committed a crime in seven years are about as likely as someone with no convictions to commit a crime.

    “Record clearance makes us safer because it enables people to work and live their lives beyond the mistakes of the past, to be productive members of our society,” Stevenson said. “Holding people back is harmful and counterproductive.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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