Three years ago, when Nicole Keadle faced two drug-related felonies, she was released from Santa Cruz Main Jail into a drug rehab program. Keadle took her probation and sobriety seriously, getting and staying clean. With the help of attorney Cassie Licker from the Santa Cruz County Public Defender’s Office, Keadle was able to get one of the felonies reduced to a misdemeanor—and then, last June, got her entire criminal record cleared.
“I can’t tell you how great a burden was lifted when the judge decided my entire record was to be cleared,” says Keadle, now 28. “I felt I was finally being judged for how my life is now, rather than the mistakes I made in the past.”
The Public Defender’s Office is rolling out the Clean Slate Program to help ex-offenders like Keadle clear or reduce the severity of their criminal records. The program aims to give qualified ex-offenders a second chance at building productive lives after successfully completing all terms of probation and showing evidence of getting their lives on track—by legally allowing less damning answers to questions about criminal background on applications for employment, housing, financial aid for school, and many public services.
Licker emphasizes that criminal records must be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Different regulations apply to different sentences, making the process like “putting together a puzzle.” When a judge has signed off to clear or reduce someone’s criminal history, some clearances are mandatory if the filing is done properly, while others allow judicial discretion to decide if the proposed changes are appropriate. The law, for example, does not allow anyone to clear their record of most sex offenses.
Licker says that once all convictions are dismissed or expunged from a record, an ex-offender can legally report they have no criminal history, but there are a few catches. For careers involving a state Department of Justice, where jobs usually require fingerprinting, the background check report comes back with the conviction record, along with notation of judicial dismissal. The ex-offender is then usually rejected because it appears false statements were made on the application, Licker says, although the applicant was legally entitled to report no criminal history.
Licker says many ex-offenders throughout the county do not know they may qualify for a judicial review of their rap sheet that could clear or reduce prior convictions. The program does have some key qualifiers: successful completion of probation, as well as no new charges pending and letters of support from employers, counselors and probation officers.
The local Community Corrections Partnership (CCP)—created by the state legislature a few years ago in every county in California—has hosted workshops to spread the word about Clean Slate. Sarah Emmert, Director of Community Organizing for the United Way of Santa Cruz County, coordinates the CCP and its Community Education and Engagement Workgroup. This group—including staff from the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, Probation Department and Watsonville Law Center—is doing outreach.
“If we fail to address the barriers that prevent a certain segment of our community from having a true second chance and a shot at success,” says Emmert, “that impacts every other member of the community. We are trying to fill the gaps and reduce the barriers to productive lives, which ultimately benefits the entire community and helps it thrive.”
Emmert says the legal process of clearing criminal records is complicated, and has changed with newly approved state propositions, including Prop 64, which legalized the commercial sale of marijuana in California. Prop 64 includes provisions for “retroactivity” in clearing some convictions for marijuana possession that are now no longer considered criminal. “It’s a complex process, and we are still figuring out how new regulations for clearance of some offenses are to be implemented,” says Emmert.
The law also doesn’t allow convicts to have most rulings that result in state prison time dismissed or expunged. But with positive letters of support showing the ex-offender has turned things around, the court can award a Certificate of Rehabilitation, Licker explains, which goes a long way toward putting a criminal history in the past.
The Community Corrections Partnership originally began as a local coordinating committee for the implementation of AB 109—the Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011—which required county jails and probation departments to shoulder the burden of reducing the inmate population of state prisons. AB 109 included funding for county programs to improve probation practices and reduce recidivism.
The “collateral consequences” of a criminal record are often overwhelming, says Licker, and can be a major barrier to leaving a criminal background in the past. “There’s a lot of fear around it. Once you get a record, there’s this fear that you will be defined by your rap sheet for the rest of your life,” Licker says. “That you are your rap sheet, and a fresh start seems impossible.”
For more information about the Clean Slate Program, contact the Public Defenders office at 429-1311.