Program Gives Ex-Convicts Clean Slate
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Hundreds of thousands of people are released each year from federal and state prisons, and many former inmates complain that when they try to reintegrate into society, their record often stands in the way. Well, some state and local governments are using little-known provisions in their penal codes to allow criminal records to be erased. From member station KALW, and new American Media, Hanna Baba reports on one program in San Francisco County.
Ms. DEMARIS EVANS(ph) (Attorney, Director of Clean Slate Program): This is the only way that you would go thought the Clean Slate program, is if you fill out this Clean Slate program application.
HANNA BABA reporting:
In interview room A at the San Francisco Public Defender's office, a young mother, Teshauna Curtis(ph), sits with her baby in her lap, holding the hand of an older child. Six years ago, she was convicted for possession of narcotics.
Ms. EVANS: Convictions in any other county?
Ms. TESHAUNA CURTIS: Not since.
Ms. EVANS: And was your probation interrupted? You didn't get arrested...
Ms. CURTIS: No.
Ms. EVANS: ...in any other places while you were on probation?
Ms. CURTIS: No.
Ms. EVANS: Was your probation violated at all?
Ms. Curtis: No.
Ms. EVANS: If your probation was successfully completed, you should be entitled to have the expungement.
BABA: Curtis is told she can get her narcotics conviction erased from her public record, thanks to a San Francisco County program called Operation Clean Slate.
Ms. EVANS: My name is Demaris Evans, and I'm the attorney in charge of the Clean Slate program.
BABA: Evans is a San Francisco Deputy Public Defender. She sits at a desk in an office where the walls are covered with colorful thank you cards sent by people she's represented. She sifts through files of the day's clients.
Ms. EVANS: Today was a very light day. The average is anywhere from 20 to 30 people.
BABA: The Clean Slate program helps former convicts who've served their terms, completed their probation, and can prove they are rehabilitated. If they can do that, the county will help clear their criminal records. Otherwise, Evans says, that record might stand in their way.
Ms. EVANS: It procludes them from getting housing, from getting licenses and certifications, getting bonded, sometimes student aid, immigration consequences. So, we help to get that conviction dismissed and set aside so that it will no longer be an obstacle from those types of things.
BABA: Deputy Evans says most crimes can be erased. Even murder, rape, and armed robbery can be expunged if the person has completed probation. But, Evans says, there are exceptions.
Ms. EVANS: There's a number of cases that are considered serious: sex offenses, requiring a registration requirement. And if that have to do with sex with a child under 14 years old, then it cannot be expunged.
BABA: California is one of only a handful of states that allows a wide range of convictions to be erased. It has supporters, but it also has critics, like Francis Luster. She served as a San Francisco probation officer for 20 years before she retired last year.
Ms. FRANCIS LUSTER (Former Probation Officer, San Francisco, California) I did refer some of my defendants to the Clean Slate programs, but they were not habitual criminals, and their offense were not murder or robbery. I just didn't want to take the chance in case they decided to reconnect with the victim, and they lost it. I didn't want to bear that responsibility, so I did not refer them.
BABA: Luster's perspective on the criminal justice system has been shaped by personal tragedy. Fifteen years ago, her only son Cofy(ph) was murdered. Now, she's an advocate for groups, including Crime Victims United.
Ms. LUSTER: There are some victims who, I mean, they've been so wounded from their loss. So, it is really, really difficult for some victims to get past that, all right? And a good number of the victims are really struggling to understand how the public defender could have such a program.
BABA: Although Clean Slate program director Evans does empathize with victim's families, she still strongly believes rehabilitated ex-offenders deserve the second chance.
Ms. EVANS: I can understand how someone could be forever, kind of, stuck in the retribution thing, but I think that it doesn't serve anyone, including them, to have someone forever ostracized and procluded from being able to change their life around and to contribute to society.
BABA: And for Evans, it's also personal.
Ms. EVANS: I'm a recovering drug addict myself, and I led a life of crime and using substances and committed crimes on a daily basis by having narcotics on me, and doing things that drug addicts do: stealing and, you know, writing bad checks, and all of those things.
BABA: Now rehabilitated, Evans believes nobody should have to wear their mistakes on their sleeves forever. Most state penal codes would allow programs similar to San Francisco's Clean Slate, but only a handful of counties nationwide have been actively promoting expungment programs like this one.
For NPR News, I'm Hana Baba in San Francisco.