The Exponential Impact of Expungement
By Julia Halprin Jackson
San José State University’s Record Clearance Project (RCP) has provided free legal guidance to more than 12,000 people since it launched in 2008. The RCP offers training for future generations of lawyers, advocates and community leaders — a unique opportunity, considering that most law clinics are established at graduate schools.
Diana Carreras, Record Clearance Project Peer Mentor. Photo: Robert C. Bain
Diana Carreras was forced to leave her childhood home at age 13, after surviving years of abuse and trauma. As a homeless teenager, she was still so eager to attend high school that she would often clean herself with a friend’s garden hose before arriving at Abraham Lincoln High School in San José. School offered her hope, which she described as a “tiny grain of sand.”
Drugs and alcohol became an escape route for Carreras’ daily trauma. Her addictions later led to a few convictions.
“I grew up victimized and went through my teens homeless,” said Carreras. “I suffered from trafficking, kidnapping. I was even left out with the garbage. Nothing could make me feel whole — nothing.”
Her path to wellness began when she discovered the Recovery Café, an organization that provides free food and mental health services in downtown San José. The cafe helped her get sober after 18 years of battling addictions.
Yet while she felt her confidence blossom, her criminal record still held her back.
Every time she would interview for a job, she’d get stuck when her potential employer asked for a background check. Despite dedicating years to rehabilitation and community service, it seemed the ghosts of her traumatic past followed her everywhere.
“I still felt like the victim who was paying the price for somebody else’s wrongs,” she said. “The world saw me as a bad person. I wanted the world to see me.”
“The world saw me as a bad person. I wanted the world to see me.”
— Diana Carreras
The power of a second chance
In 2016, a friend referred her to San José State’s Record Clearance Project (RCP), a program that offers free “speed screenings” to help members of the public understand their legal rights as well as LiveScan fingerprinting to help people get copies of their criminal history reports (“RAP” sheets). It also offers representation in court on petitions to dismiss eligible convictions and reduce eligible felonies to misdemeanors in Santa Clara County.
SJSU Justice Studies instructor and attorney Margaret “Peggy” Stevenson launched the RCP as a series of justice studies courses and an internship program that provides undergraduates with the necessary training and attorney supervision to help eligible individuals get their records cleared as allowed by law, also known as expungement.
Initially skeptical, Carreras felt a glimmer of hope following her RCP interview with SJSU students. For the first time in her life, she was offered legal advice — free of judgment.
In the spring of 2017, she worked with RCP to get LiveScanned and completed her speed screening. Student advocates helped her prepare a strong case for expungement. The team needed to show that dismissing Carreras’ convictions was in the “interests of justice,” the legal standard that requires explaining the reason for the convictions and why the person deserved to have their record cleared.
The RCP also offered her a chance to practice for her court proceedings with students, faculty and volunteers role-playing as judge and district attorney.
Carreras was in disbelief at the actual hearing, when the Santa Clara County judge read aloud from her case and declared her record officially expunged.
“The judge said how wonderful it was, my recovery, and he complimented me left and right in front of everyone,” she recalled. “It felt like people could now look directly into my eyes. I didn’t have to look up to anyone because they weren’t looking down at me. It felt so good to be seen in the eyes of justice as a good person.”
The Record Clearance Project staff includes, from left to right: Cindy Parra, ’12 Criminal Justice Administration, ’19 MSW; Jordan Velosa, ’20 Justice Studies; Jesse Mejia, ’19 Justice Studies; Darlene Montero; Michelle Taikeff, ’19 Justice Studies; Victoria Kirschner; Omar Arauza, ’20 Justice Studies; and Diana Carreras. Photo: Robert C. Bain
Creating opportunities for clients and students alike
Since launching the RCP in 2008, Stevenson and her team have spoken to nearly 13,000 people, including 4,000 in custody, explaining expungement law and employment rights of people with convictions.
What’s more, after the RCP obtained its LiveScan machine in 2017, SJSU students, supervising attorneys and community volunteers, have been able to provide more than 800 people with their histories, saving them at least $31,500 in commercial services, and received court decisions that removed over $130,000 in debt.
In addition to the financial benefit, providing a safe, friendly environment alleviates some of the trauma many people experience in being fingerprinted again.
“Our justice system takes people who have made a mistake in their past and condemns them to limited employment, housing and education for the rest of their lives,” said Stevenson. “It takes sophistication, knowledge, experience and kindness to interview our clients, share their stories and advocate for them.”
Stevenson has trained SJSU students to conduct over 2,100 individual legal advice interviews and helped them file more than 1,700 petitions to dismiss convictions on behalf of over 600 clients. The training, practice and role-play pays dividends: The RCP has an impressive 99% success rate in court.
That success is exponential, says RCP assistant Omar Arauza, ’20 Justice Studies. By providing the services to help clients get their records cleared, SJSU students are given a rare insider perspective into the California justice system. Arauza originally majored in software engineering, but shifted to justice studies when he saw that he could make a greater direct impact on people’s lives.
“Growing up, I was never in a situation where I was able to interact with attorneys or even given the idea that I can learn the law,” Arauza said. “It was only through this program that I was able to understand I am capable of doing this.”
Arauza explained that the RCP taught him the importance of objectivity and the value of informing the public of their legal rights. And now that he’s been involved in legal processes, he’s studying for the LSATs.
He will never forget his first speed screening with a client whose record surprised him.
“A staff member reminded me that we didn’t know if he actually committed the offense, or if we were simply reviewing a government document saying that he was convicted,” he said. “She told me that to do this work properly, you need to learn not to impose a judgment on people because that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to present them with their legal rights and information that they are entitled to know.
“That’s when I realized how important it is to have a nonjudgmental objective perspective, and how the work we do as advocates is really necessary.”
One of the ways that RCP informs potential clients of their rights is by giving presentations at jails, community centers and rehabilitation facilities. Arauza adds that so often clients are operating in survival mode, blinded by trauma or a history of addiction, they are not aware that their records may be eligible for expungement.
“The RCP is so engaging and it uplifts our clients, many of whom have survived the most horrendous conditions people can face,” he said. “The fact that we’re able to just give them hope, at the very least, and at the very best completely change their lives — that’s what I consider to be important.”
“The fact that we’re able to just give them hope, at the very least, and at the very best completely change their lives — that’s what I consider to be important”
— Omar Arauza, ’20 Justice Studies
Peer mentor Diana Carreras and project assistant Omar Arauza, ’20 Justice Studies, in the RCP office at San José State. Photo by Robert C. Bain
Paying it forward
Carreras can attest to the life-changing impact of record expungement.
Following her hearing, she felt that her hope, which once felt like “a grain of sand shared between my hands,” had grown to be as “vast as a beach.”
“Growing up as I did, you feel like the world’s given up on you,” she said. “You were never a part of the world. Expungement has allowed me to be a part of this world.”
Not long after her record was expunged in 2018, Carreras was hired as a RCP peer mentor, where she works directly with clients as they are released from custody and connects them to community resources. Every year, she shares her story with justice studies students who are considering enrolling in the RCP and provides perspective to those who have already enrolled.
“There’s so much work to be done,” she added. “I have the energy and the tools needed to help people change. This is where I belong, helping others like myself become great people.”
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Top photo: Robert C. Bain/Record Clearance Project alumna and peer mentor Diana Carreras stands in front of a portrait by Suhita Shirodkar.