Read the full article, by Tammerlin Drummond (Oakland Tribune), on Contra Costa Times.
24 July 2015 – One recent Saturday, a man walked into the UFCW Union Hall in Hayward for a “record clearance clinic.” He had eight felonies on his rap sheet for crack possession and was seeking legal assistance to get them reduced to misdemeanors.
The stakes are high. As long as he has a felony record, he is automatically disqualified from many jobs regardless of his skills.
He is banned from public housing. Many private landlords will refuse to rent to him. If he wants to go to college, he can’t get a student loan. The list goes on and on.
Proposition 47, passed last November, was intended to give people convicted of certain nonviolent felonies — especially for drug crimes such as these — a fresh start. The voter initiative changed simple drug possession and property crimes under $950 from felonies to misdemeanors. It is retroactive. Some 4,000 people have been released from state prison. An estimated 1 million who have old convictions or are on probation or parole may be eligible for felony reduction.
“We’re trying to tell people not only about the law change but about the significant benefits of a record change in an age when a felony conviction has tremendous collateral consequences,” says Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice and co-author of Proposition 47.
The Hayward clinic is part of a full-court press statewide by lawmakers, probation and court staff, community organizations, pro-bono attorneys, public defenders, advocates for the formerly incarcerated, and churches to get the word out before the law expires in November 2017 and the window of opportunity closes.
Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, chair of the public safety committee and one of the event co-sponsors, says he’s encouraging other lawmakers to hold similar clinics in Alameda County and throughout the state. “People can do things when they’re younger and now it’s 10 years later and they’re different people,” Quirk says. “The only way we can get people to reform their lives is to make them eligible to get work.”
At the recent Hayward clinic, attorneys from the Alameda County Public Defender and the East Bay Community Law Center provided free legal advice to some two dozen people throughout the day. Attorneys and law students under their supervision evaluated the rap sheets of formerly incarcerated people to determine which felonies might be eligible for Proposition 47 relief or if not, some form of dismissal.But even obtaining a rap sheet to start the petition process is a stretch for people with limited financial means. It can cost $50 just to get one’s fingerprints processed and file an application with the Department of Justice for a complete criminal history. Proposition 47 petitions must include every conviction.
“Poverty is a major obstacle for people who are already set back financially because of their conviction,” says Manuel La Fontane, an organizer with All of Us Or None, an advocacy organization for formerly incarcerated people and their families. “You have to pay for your rap sheet, which can incur a cost that people would rather put toward their kids’ school.”
The criminal justice bureaucracy is daunting. Individuals must file a separate petition for each conviction that is not part of the same case at the courthouse where they were sentenced. So if someone has multiple convictions in different cities — even within the same county — it can be a logistical nightmare. Different judges will review the same Proposition 47 petition from the same individual to determine whether he deserves a felony reduction based upon evidence of rehabilitation, whether he has paid his fines and restitution, among other factors.
“It’s very burdensome,” says Eliza Hersh, director of the East Bay Community Law Center’s Clean Slate program, which provides pro bono re-entry legal services. “If California wants to invest in a more fair and efficient way to help people clean up their records and move on? There’s a way we can do that.”
How about a system that will enable e-filing of Proposition 47 petitions? We are, after all, in the digital age.
There will be a Proposition 47 clinic Aug. 1 in Oakland, co-sponsored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda. It will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at At Thy Word Ministries, 8915 International Blvd.