By Dianne Anderson
It should come as no surprise that the last place most formerly incarcerated want to be is at another courthouse standing before another judge.
That’s probably one reason why thousands that could have gotten expunged haven’t taken advantage of the process locally since 2014 when the expungement law opened up.
Since then, Michelle Dodd has handled over 300 cases from start to finish. She takes care of the entire process, and all clients need to do is show up at the door of the Legal Aid Society of San Bernardino.
And, it’s free.
“They’re going to send you right to me. I’m going to do the paperwork, you’ll come in and sign it. You don’t ever have to see the judge or the court clerk,” said Dodd, case management director at the Legal Aid Society of San Bernardino.
Documents are sent by mail so the client doesn’t have to file. The judge hears it within 30 to 45 days when the order is denied, or approved, via the mail.
With her 90% success rate, mostly it’s approved.
Over the past few years, she has seen several clients come in that need multiple expungements. One client originally had three charges, but had snowballed into 28 parole layered charges. It was a case of violation on top of violation, on top of violation.
“The reality is that they were young. Now they’re older, and all of these are from their past. They were silly charges,” she said.
Youth get tied up in the system from an early age, and probably never learned how, or had an opportunity to clean up their past. Now that they’re older, they have a family to support and they’re trying to get a job.
Despite their checkered backgrounds, some of her clients have been able to land decent work, but she recommends not waiting until the last minute to set the record straight.
One client was up for a job at DMV, but he lost his window of opportunity because his expungement was not even close to being ready. He had to produce proof, but he didn’t realize that he needed an expungement until they notified him.
“They sent him a letter of denial that he had a charge from 23 years ago, and he needed to get it fixed,” she said. “But they only gave him ten days to clear that up before he could reapply.”
It cost him the potential job.
Others have also come in because they are trying to assist their aging parents. Decades later, they can’t pass the background check without an expungement that they didn’t realize they needed.
“They’re thinking I did two days in jail, and got 36 months of probation,” she said. “Now, it’s 20 years later and they can’t get the job because of that charge.”
Dodd, who has worked with Legal Aid nearly 24 years, said the expungement law passed in 2014, but the forms changed in 2017 to re-sentencing language that now involves several different components, including immigration.
Until the laws change, the biggest barrier even with expungement is that the formerly incarcerated still must check the box that they’ve been arrested.
“Once it’s expunged, it says dismissed instead of what the sentence was,” she said. “To get it off the record requires an entirely different motion, and character letters from people [without a] guarantee that’s going through either.”
However, there may be some encouraging changes on the horizon for low-level offenders that have been locked out of jobs, housing or education because of their arrest record.
AB 1076 wants to seal the conviction database of eight million records from public view, but it will be open for certain law enforcement agencies. To pass, it needs to clear both Democratically-controlled houses before heading to Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign or veto in September. If passed, the law would take effect in January, 2021.
“That’s the change we need,” Dodd said.
Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), author of AB 1076, states on his website that the process of automating arrest and conviction relief at the California Department of Justice is the first of its kind.
“Everybody deserves a second chance. We must open doors for those facing housing and employment barriers and use available technology to clear arrest and criminal records for individuals already eligible for relief. There is a great cost to our economy and society when we shut out job-seeking workers looking for a better future,” Ting stated.
According to www.timedone.org, a campaign of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, one-fifth of the 70 million Americans convicted of a crime still struggle with barriers to access jobs, housing, education long after they have served their time.
“The negative impacts of a felony conviction disproportionately impact people of color, people living in urban areas, people without a college degree, and people who are low income. The largest disparities relate to finding a job or housing,” Californians for Safety and Justice reports. “ People of color are 25% more likely than white people to report difficulty finding a job and 61% more likely to report difficulty finding housing.”
For more information on clinic times and document preparation, see http://legalaidofsb.org/