For those in the Bay Area facing the barriers of having a criminal record, help in moving forward can found through Second Chance Legal Clinic in San Francisco.
The clinic was launched in 2011 as a direct services program of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area — LCCR — according to Michelle Ghafar, UCLA President's Public Law Service Fellow for Civil Rights of San Francisco.
It was started for people affected by the collateral consequences of the criminal justice system, which Ghafar said is part of LCCR's overall goal of challenging the racial and civil rights injustices that are embedded in today's mass incarceration in the U.S.
“As most people now know, there are dramatic ethnic and racial disparities in the criminal justice system in terms of how people are policed and wind up being in contact with that system and in then having to deal with the aftereffects of contact with the criminal justice system,” Ghafar said. “So, the clinic is one the main ways that we kind of try to attack that problem.
These disparities are reflected in those who come to the clinic.
According to their Salesforce database, about 52 percent of the clients are African American and 17 percent are Latino, said Kristina Harootun, a legal fellow of LCCR.
The most common issue people come to the clinic for are criminal records remedies — expungements — which are such things as dismissals and felony reductions, Harootun added.
This means working around Proposition 47 and California Penal Code 17B, which Ghafar said allows certain felony offenses to be reduced down to misdemeanors on people's records.
People also come for background check issues, occupational licensing, driver's license help — such as suspension due to unpaid traffic infractions — and immigration questions.
The clinic works to have these convictions removed from their record, which is key to obtaining a job, moving forward, and avoiding further contact with the criminal justice system.
“If you don't have to report an arrest or a conviction on a criminal record, you have a much higher chance of getting a job,” said Elisa Della-Piana, the legal director of LCCR. “The data is very strong on that. People are many times more likely to get employment if they don't have previous convictions on their criminal records.”
Clinics take place on the first Tuesday of each month at Goodwill on 1500 Mission St., and one on the last Tuesday of the month at the West Bay Conference Center on Fillmore Street, according to Kristina Harootun.
“We have that connection because the San Francisco Defender's Office has a program called Mo' Magic that's focused on youth outreach,” Harootun said. “They became a community partner of ours a long time ago. They used to be in that space. We've stayed in that space because we have a good relationship with the building.” She added that they wanted to be in a traditionally African-American neighborhood, which at the time was the Fillmore.
They also wanted to be more accessible to their clients outside of their Embarcadero offices, which Harootun thinks can be more intimidating for clients to visit.
People must first call a hotline number, found on LCCR's website and on fliers, and leave a message about their legal issue.
A screening process determines what they are eligible for, checks that they are not on probation or parole, and checks for any open warrants.
This is because those still on probation or parole or that have outstanding warrants would not be eligible for an expungement.
A difficult part of the process, Harootun said, is getting statewide RAP sheets — records of arrest and prosecution.
While local counties have their own RAP sheets, the clinic serves clients who have convictions in multiple counties across the state, thus requiring them to a get a statewide California Department of Justice RAP sheet.
The default cost of that is $50, which the clinic can help reduce with fee waivers.
To receive the best advice from the clinic, clients then have to get Livescan fingerprinted at a Livescan provider and have their RAP sheet sent to them, which can take 3 to 4 weeks.
A lot of organizations, Harootun added, have been coming together and providing free Livescan events in the communities to help remove this initial barrier as much as possible.
After working with the clinic, clients have been able to receive occupational licensing, such as a nursing license or a security guard license, because they had an attorney help them get their record cleaned.
The barrier of being denied by the State Board for an occupational licensing — which usually happens when someone has a record — is now removed.
It is this type of barrier removal with which the clinic has had high success.
“There are very, very few examples I can think of that not being the case,” Ghafar said. “I think, by in large, it’s because we screen clients so heavily to begin with in terms of making sure that they're eligible for criminal records remedies. Once we begin working with them at that point, we're almost 100 percent sure that would be likely to have their convictions dismissed.”
The clinic is looking to expand its current work in San Francisco and Alameda counties, as well as outside of them, although it would be difficult due to lack of funding and staffing beyond what is provided by the Public Defender's offices of San Francisco and Alameda counties, according to Elisa Della-Piana.
Under the new president and administration, Della-Piana anticipates more immigrants approaching the clinic because criminal records affect immigration status.
“Even small things such as a jaywalking offense — a misdemeanor — could be considered having a criminal record and could be considered grounds for deportation if the president changes the current policy,” she said. “So, it's more important than ever that immigrants in particular come and try to get services and realize they have options.”
With a huge population of persons with criminal records in the Bay Area, the clinic will continue to offer these services to people trying to turn their lives around.
For Harootun, it is gratifying to go to the clinic and have face-to-face interaction with the population the clinic is serving, especially because she and others mainly work in their offices.
“I always feel re-energized when I go staff a clinic because you hear people's stories and you're just completely humbled by a lot of what these folks have been through in their lives,” she said. “They're very inspirational because they are so motivated. When they're coming to us for help with this service, they're very much at a point where they literally want a second chance. They're ready to put the past behind them and get back on their feet. I think everyone deserves that and we should be society that supports that.”
More information about the Second Chance Legal Clinic can be found at www.lccr.com/secondchance
, or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The phone number to call to sign up for the clinic is 415.814.7610.