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Free legal clinic helps SLO County residents clear criminal records. 'It turned my life around'

Tribune - 3/2/2024

Mar. 2—Editor's note: Two participants in the clinic who spoke with The Tribune about their experiences requested anonymity. Given the nature of the clinic, The Tribune is referring to those sources by their first name and last initial only.

Peter H. is not the same person he was 40 years ago.

From his 20s to early 30s, he struggled with substance abuse and racked up several drug and alcohol-related charges, including drinking while driving.

"I did a lot of things that I knew were not right," Peter told The Tribune. "Unless you change, nothing is gonna change. It was hard because being afraid of the change, it made it difficult, but I knew in my heart that that lifestyle was not meant for me."

Peter described himself as a "functional alcoholic" and said at the time he quit, he was drinking a 30-pack of beer per day. He knew he had a problem, he said, and one day he decided to stop drinking and prayed to God to ask for help.

The next day he broke his usual routine — skipped going to the store to buy alcohol — and went to the doctor. He was prescribed medication to help him through withdrawal, and he never drank again.

Peter began to rebuild his life on a new path, but his convictions followed him. Namely, he didn't apply for certain jobs because he knew his record would disqualify him. By 64, he'd been sober from alcohol for nine years and drug-free for more than three decades. He was ready to completely move on from the life he'd left behind.

He called the SLO Defenders to ask how he would go about the process — he said he could not afford a private lawyer — and they referred him to the Clean Slate Clinic, a legal clinic that helps people with qualifying convictions expunge their records to help them gain housing and employment.

The clinic did his intake over the phone and began Peter's petition to have his record expunged.

He was one of 142 people who has had at least one conviction expunged since the program's inception in 2022. Two in-person clinics have served 300 people in San Luis Obispo County and a third in-person clinic is scheduled for March 8.

"One would think well, why would they be such a big deal? But for me it was," Peter said. "It was like the world was just lifted off my shoulders."

How does Clean Slate Clinic work?

Defense attorneys and law professors Joseph Doherty and Renee Lizarraga pitched the project to San Luis Obispo College of Law in January 2022 to have law students be involved in the clinic.

The two were inspired by the Post-Conviction Justice Project they took part in while attending USC law.

"We were able to understand firsthand the benefit of clinical work as law students and how that prepares you for client representation and practice," Doherty said.

While working with the SLO Defenders, the primary public defender organization in the county, Doherty decided to pitch the clinic to the school.

"A lot of people don't understand that at the end of the day people who are labeled as criminals, they're just people who have made a mistake or who have been in a difficult circumstance," Lizarraga said. "But that doesn't mean that they're not capable of change."

The two then reached out to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office, the county Probation Department and other key players to create an in-person multi-agency approach.

"Everyone seemed to understand the obvious benefits of increasing stability for community members, especially our most vulnerable community members in San Luis Obispo County," Doherty said. "Helping them achieve housing and employment was going to drive recidivism down and is going to increase those housing and employment options for people that otherwise didn't have access to that because of their criminal records — and that was going to benefit everybody."

Doherty and Lizarraga also hold leadership positions in the People's Justice Project and California Rural Legal Assistance, which are partners of the clinic.

So how does it work?

The clinic follows something of an assembly line, starting at an intake table where someone's file can be located if they did a phone intake or they could begin a file if they're a walk-in. Then, the client will speak to a defense attorney to see if their case qualifies under the law.

People with convictions for lower-level felonies and misdemeanors that have completed probation, paid fines and restitution and had at least one year pass since sentencing may qualify for expungement.

If their case does qualify, the client heads to the probation department's table to ensure they've completed their post-conviction requirements, and then to the District Attorney's table to have their case reviewed.

If the District Attorney's Office does not oppose the petition, it gets filed and signed by a judge without a hearing.

If the the District Attorney's Office does oppose a petition, law students will help prep it for a hearing. Doherty then litigates the petition in the hearing and a judge decides whether the petition should be granted.

After the visit with the District Attorney's Office, other tables, like Restorative Partners, will be available. Doherty said he hopes to continue adding more wrap-around services — like housing, employment and substance abuse help — to the in-person clinic.

According to data from Doherty, the clinic has served 300 people — 177 at the last in-person clinic — and filed 448 petitions. Of those petitions, 317 were granted and 131 are pending.

Zero petitions have been denied.

Of the 142 people who have had at least one petition granted, only three have been charged or convicted of another crime. All three of those people were charged or convicted of crimes relating to a substance abuse disorder, Doherty said.

Nearly 98% of people who have their records expunged in San Luis Obispo County have not returned to the criminal justice system, numbers provided by Doherty show.

SLO County woman finds housing, employment after record expunged

According to an outcome survey of 111 clients that was provided to The Tribune by Doherty, 92% of respondents reported being housed after participating in the clinic, nearly 88% reported improved emotional well-being, 82% reported improvement in self-sufficiency, nearly 80% reported being employed and nearly 56% reporting increased wages and benefits.

None of the clients who responded to the survey had been arrested or convicted of another crime at the time they filled it out.

Both Lizarraga and Doherty said stability is key when it comes to preventing crime, and helping people secure housing and employment by clearing their records can help immensely with that.

Clearing her record helped Darlene J., who told The Tribune she was convicted of felony theft from an elderly person after a misunderstanding with the elderly woman she was caring for.

She said the woman gave her jewelry, and about a year later she was short on bills and pawned a few rings. A year after she pawned the rings, the woman died and her husband reported the jewelry stolen, Darlene said.

After her conviction in 2019, Darlene couldn't find work and her housing applications kept getting denied. Her self-esteem was plummeting.

"I was at a dead end," she said. "I couldn't find employment or any type of residence."

She was staying with a family member when she saw an article about the Clean Slate Clinic and she contacted it immediately. By October, her record was expunged.

Darlene said she felt immediate relief when the judge approved her petition to have her record expunged.

"It made me see there's a light at the end of the tunnel," she said.

She began applying for jobs as soon as she could, was quickly hired and found new, stable housing.

Darlene said if it weren't for the clinic, she'd likely be facing homelessness.

"I don't have words for it," Darlene said. "It turned my life around."

The next clinic is scheduled to take place March 8 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the SLO County Law Library in front of the courthouse. To preregister, call 805-902-2752.


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