For the average citizen, trying to clear up personal information on a government computer—Social Security records, for example—can range between a headache and a bureaucratic nightmare. For California ex-offenders it can be worse, a permanent way of life that sometimes can resemble a trip down into a Victor Hugo or Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel, a hole in which any effort to dig one’s way out only ends in burying oneself in a deeper hole.
As a condition of their convictions, many California ex-offenders must pay fines and restitution, either to the state or to the victims, most often on installment. To pay such monthly installments, the ex-offender must, of course, have some source of income. But most employers require the filling out of a form that asks information on any criminal convictions, and many of those employers virtually automatically exclude any candidates who answer “yes” to such a conviction. No job, and no ability to pay the installments, gets the ex-offender deeper into problems with the courts.
Another difficulty comes when ex-offenders take the first steps to try to clear up problems with their records in order to move forward with their lives. No small number of them have outstanding warrants that they have either forgotten about or were never informed of. Trips to the courthouse to deal with one situation can result—after a quick computer check—in an arrest for an entirely different situation. The same can be caused by simply going down to the Department of Motor Vehicles to reinstate a driver’s license or to obtain an identification card, without which no legitimate job can be obtained, and no check can be cashed once a job has been worked on and wages earned.
The result can be that many ex-offenders who want to turn their lives around are prevented from doing so by bureaucratic entanglements, and are forced to either remain in a twilight zone of life where they can never re-enter society as full citizens, or else to revert back to the same type of criminal activity that got them into trouble in the first place.
On Saturday morning, for the third straight year, a coalition of East Bay politicians, judicial representatives, and social services organizations called local ex-offenders together in the Berkeley High School Auditorium for a summit conference to help them start the process of working their way out of the morass. Co-sponsors and organizers included Congressmember Barabara Lee (D-Oakland), Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson (D-Oakland), the Alameda County Superior Court, the East Bay Community Law Center, and local ex-offenders organization All Of Us Or None.
Dorsey Nunn, the charismatic ex-offender leader of All Of Us Or None, told participants that “cleaning your slate is a stopgap measure until we can win full rehabilitation after completion of your record.” He likened the continuing problems ex-offenders have once their time in prison or on parole is over to a situation “if you finished paying off your bill, and then a bill collector showed up the next day to ask you to pay something more.”
Nunn said that helping get ex-offenders back into the mainstream of community economic and social life was “one of the important ways we can stop the violence and the craziness that’s going on all over Oakland.”
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Gordon Baranco, who introduced the day’s events, said that “too many times, the legal system is a barrier to recovery from criminal conviction rather than assisting in that recovery.” Baranco said that such recovery was important both for the ex-offenders themselves and for society at large, and urged ex-offenders to “call your mamas, call your friends, call your neighbors across the backyard fence who always have that funny smell coming from their window, tell them we’re going to be here all afternoon, and they should come out and start getting their records cleared up.”
In one workshop held in the Berkeley High band room, participants sat between the piano and assorted drums and peppered Serina Rankins, an East Bay Community Law Center paralegal, with questions about details on how to expunge their criminal records, and what will be the exact results.
Participants learned, for example, that removal of a conviction from a person’s record under Penal Code 1203.4 can allow a job applicant to legally answer on a form that they have not been convicted of that particular crime. On the other hand, the conviction can still count as a strike under the three strikes law, and if it is a sex offense, the offender remains on the publicized sex registry.
They also learned how, under certain circumstances, to have a felony conviction put down to a misdemeanor on their record using Penal Code Section 17b, or that they need a Certificate of Rehabilitation instead of record expungement if they served time in state prison, since in such cases the conviction will always remain on their record.
For anyone who has never had to deal with the aftermath of a criminal conviction, it might have seemed like a conversation in another language, or dealing with a society with strange new rules.
Rankins said that the Berkeley-based East Bay Community Law Center provides free consultation and representation for ex-offenders clearing up Alameda County criminal records, and will assist in filling out forms for records in counties outside of Alameda and states outside of California.
Participants earnestly took notes or shared experiences with each other, and many of them took Rankins’ business card and set up consultation appointments.
Earlier, participants listened to short presentations by local politicians sympathetic to their problems.
Congressmember Barbara Lee criticized the fact that rehabilitation is no longer an official goal of the state’s criminal justice system. “Not enough lawmakers are concerned about what happens when ex-offenders come back to their families and communities after serving time,” Lee said. “When [Berkeley Mayor] Tom Bates and I were in the California Assembly, we tried to get rehabilitation back into the criminal code. We weren’t able to succeed. I know that [Assemblymembers] Sandré Swanson and Loni Hancock are working on that now. It’s a necessary step.”
Bates, Swanson, and Hancock were all present at the summit.
Lee also criticized “the prison-industrial complex that has skyrocketed in California under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
Hancock called conditions for ex-offenders “a broken system. We have a broken probation system and a broken parole system. Coming out of incarceration, it takes four months to get an ID card from the state. Without that card, people can’t get a bank account, they can’t get a job, they can’t cash a check. And we wonder why these people are having problems.” Hancock said that the legislature passed a bill she authored this year (AB 639) that would have mandated the Department of Corrections to see that ex-inmates are able to get Department of Motor Vehicle ID cards as they come out of incarceration. “Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed it.” Hancock said.
In his veto message Schwarzenegger said that while “I share the author's concern for providing tools to individuals about to be released from prison that will aid them in making a successful transition into the community … this bill will result in parolees receiving services that are not currently available to the general public. For example, the DMV does not perform the function of determining whether or not members of the general public have the ability to pay applicable identification card fees.” In addition, the governor said that Hancock’s bill would duplicate a pilot ID project already being worked on in collaboration with the California Department of Corrections and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“In his veto message, the governor said the ID program was going to be implemented, without the law,” Hancock said. “So we will watch him and see that he does so.”
Swanson said that “we have to convince the larger public that we are not just doing you [ex-offenders] a favor, but that we are following the Constitution” in allowing ex-offenders to re-enter society after their sentences have been completed.
And citing the biblical story of Jesus telling a crowd that was about to stone a prostitute that “he who is without sin, cast the first stone,” Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson said that “our society must understand we cannot prison-build our way out of the problem of crime and violence in California. We have to drop our stones and put our emphasis back into rehabilitation.”