University program gives reformed criminals a second chance
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Armando Aguilar was tired of living in the shadow of his rap sheet.
Six years removed from his last conviction — for second-degree commercial burglary, under influence of meth and possession of a stolen check — and after he cleaned up his life, Aguilar graduated from San Jose City College in 2009 with a state certification to work as an alcohol and drug counselor. He soon found a job working with adults.
But when he applied for a job counseling youth, his criminal history killed his chances.
Soon after that, Aguilar heard about a free program at San Jose State that helps people who have turned their lives around remove certain misdemeanor and felony convictions from the public record. With the help of SJSU justice studies students, Aguilar’s criminal history was wiped clean by a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge.
“The fact I got everything expunged was a relief for me,” said Aguilar, 38, who was hired in October to work with at-risk youth in the East Bay and has informed his employer about his past. “I was able to close a chapter on that part of my life.”
Aguilar is one of about 200 people whose criminal histories have been dismissed through SJSU’s Record Clearance Project, created in 2008 and possibly the only university program of its kind in the nation. Justice studies students have interviewed hundreds of prospective clients and reviewed their rap sheets to see if they qualify for record expungement, a little-known and little-used legal process in which certain misdemeanor and felony offenses, mostly less serious crimes that did not result in a prison sentence, can be erased from public record.
The majority, if not all, of the clients were battling addiction at the time they committed their nonviolent crimes.
“People tend to come to us when they feel they really have already made a change in their lives,” said Peggy Stevenson, a San Jose State professor and director of the Record Clearance Project. “Almost everyone has really already demonstrated they have turned their lives around.”
While it might sound to some like the expungement process allows criminals to escape responsibility for their misdeeds, those involved in the program say it is set up to weed out bad actors, with plenty of checks and balances.
Those who did prison time for serious or violent felonies — in California, most sentences of longer than one year must be served in prison — are not eligible. Even certain convictions resulting in jail time, such as child pornography and certain sex crimes, can’t be expunged.
And anyone who has had a subsequent negative encounter with law enforcement or did not successfully complete probation must go before a judge before expungement is granted.
After expungement, a person’s criminal history does not show up on a public background check but it remains visible to law enforcement agencies, the courts and licensing boards. Stevenson encourages participants in the SJSU program to acknowledge their criminal history if they are asked, and to explain that the conviction was dismissed by the state.
J.J. Kapp, assistant public defender for Santa Clara County, described expungement as “a judicial confirmation a person has reformed.”
“Psychologically, it’s a great boost for people,” Kapp said. “Also, it removes an obstacle in many cases for getting back into the work force. That’s really big.”
Once clients are chosen for the project — only Santa Clara County residents are eligible — students write petitions that are filed in court and hold moot court sessions to practice giving testimony before a judge.
In the end, a judge decides “if the interests of justice support dismissing the conviction,” Stevenson said. The district attorney has supported a majority of the petitions, and judges have denied only two petitions filed by the project over the past eight years.
“By the time they get to us, they’ve changed their lives completely,” said Lisseth Castillo, 26, a project staff member who plans to apply to law school next year. “They give so much of themselves to their community and their families.”
One of her clients who had his criminal history expunged at a court hearing in March broke into tears as he walked out of the courtroom.
“He didn’t realize the other impact it would have on him — the closure,” Castillo said.
Although the project turns many clients away because of lack of students and funding, students continue to do outreach, including at Elmwood County Jail, informing convicts how they can apply on their own. “The problem is people need to know to apply,” Stevenson said. “It isn’t automatically done.”
On May 5, one group of applicants who had been working with the students appeared before a judge in a bid to have their records wiped clean.
All five people had their records expunged.
One of those clients, a 33-year-old Gilroy woman who asked not to be identified, needs to complete four more classes to obtain her AA certificate from a community college.
She has been passed over for jobs with nonprofit organizations because of convictions that happened more than 10 years ago.
“I was nervous, and immediately the judge was telling me how my story moved her,” the woman said. “She was complimenting me on the dramatic change I made in my life.
“When she told me that my record was going to be set aside … tears started coming down my eyes. To me, it was a touching moment. I will never forget that. It was awesome.”