Innovative San Jose State Project Helps Inform Future Criminal Justice Leaders

by the Renewing Communities Initiative

An innovative project at San Jose State University’s Department of Justice Studies is helping bridge the gap between tomorrow’s criminal justice leaders and those affected by mass incarceration.

The Record Clearance Project (RCP), started by Professor Peggy Stevenson in 2008, provides expungement assistance and mentoring to California residents who have been incarcerated.  Undergraduate students at San Jose State - most of whom intend to launch their careers in criminal justice fields such as probation, parole, and sheriff - are trained to read criminal record rap sheets and understand California expungement law. They are then paired with a formerly incarcerated Californian who needs assistance.  The program not only addresses a statewide lack of legal help to provide these critical services, but builds future stakeholders who have been informed about the hurdles faced by their formerly incarcerated neighbors – hurdles that often are inadvertently created or exacerbated by the criminal justice system itself.

More and more, those who come to RCP for assistance are themselves students in the state’s colleges and universities, often in one of California’s 114 community colleges. These students are taking advantage of the vast public higher education system to transform their lives, but continue to be hampered by a past history that can be misrepresented in the rap sheet, or that could be expunged.

James, for example, is a student at Bakersfield College. He made bad choices when he was younger, and served time in both jail and prison. Coming out, he was determined to rebuild his life and do something better. He enrolled in college, and has persevered through countless hurdles to stay in school, maintain a 4.0 gpa, and focus on the future. He leads Free on the Outside, a student organization on campus for other formerly incarcerated students, and aspires to be a social worker. He has always known that he would be hampered with a prison record, but not only did he not have a copy of his rap sheet (or know how to get one), but the byzantine process of record expungement was confusing and overwhelming. Then he connected with two students at RCP. They obtained a copy of his rap sheet, including one for his records, and determined he was eligible for expungement. They explained the process and helped him file court motions to clear his record. “I would never have been able to get this done otherwise,” said James. “I was prepared to have to go over the process at least two times because of mistakes I’m sure I would have made. Dillan and Patrick at San Jose State were great and I can’t thank them enough.” With this newly attained knowledge, James hopes to replicate the services he received to help other Bakersfield College students with their expungement needs and to obtain Certificates of Rehabilitation.

Dillan and Patrick are "advanced students," enrolled in one of the record clearance classes at San Jose State. As advanced students, they not only represent clients like James, but also assist in training the incoming students enrolled in the Practical Legal Skills class. They use their experience to model interviews, advise regarding rap sheet analysis and critique new students' work, supplementing what the Practical Legal Skills students learn in class.

RCP recently taught the Practical Legal Skills class to in-custody students in the local county jail, awarding them three units of San Jose State credit for their work. According to Stevenson, "They were an outstanding group of students. In response to our asking how the class could be improved, they had two suggestions: more homework and have class meet every day." 

A key feature of San Jose State’s RCP program is the Path to Expungement mentoring program. The RCP hired three former clients to serve as mentors to guide their clients from custody to moving forward with their lives. Once the Path to Expungement clients are eligible to apply for expungement, the RCP prepares their petitions in court. One of RCP’s clients, for example, learned about RCP while in custody. With the help of her RCP mentor, she completed community college and now is enrolled at UC Monterey Bay. With RCP representation, the judge terminated her probation early, reduced her felonies, dismissed her convictions and waived approximately $1800 in balance due. She is now working at RCP as a mentor, meeting with clients of her own and helping them go through the same process that helped her.

As a result of assisting their clients, the San Jose State undergraduates learn about the criminal justice system from the first-hand experiences of their clients. They write court Declarations for their clients in the first person, explaining what led to their clients' criminal convictions, what was their turning point, and what are they doing now. This highly personal understanding informs the undergraduates' future work in deeply meaningful ways. 

Although it could be viewed simply as a positive way for San Jose State undergraduate students to provide a much needed service, the RCP program is more appropriately viewed as a win-win that does as much for the San Jose State students as it does for their clients. It is a pedagogical opportunity that can and should be replicated at campuses throughout the state.