Since its inception in 2008, SJSU’s Record Clearance Project (RCP) has blossomed into one of CommUniverCity’s flagship programs. The RCP spans two semesters and offers a clinical learning environment for undergraduate students in the Justice Studies department, who received hands-on experience assisting people in clearing their criminal records. The RCP sponsors ‘speed-screenings’, where students offer clients a quick overview of their particular situation. RCP students then prepare petitions for eligible cases and present them to the County of Santa Clara for expungement. In the 2014-15 academic year alone, the students of RCP prepared 93 cases for 31 clients! None of this would be possible without RCP’s founder and unflappable leader, Peggy Stevenson. We recently caught up with Peggy to ask her a few questions about this unique program.
How long have you been involved with RCP?
Helping a client clear a criminal record was a class project in the ‘Courts and Society’ class I taught in 2008. Showing how courts worked in a particular, hands-on way illustrated some of the things we talked about in class. I realized that more background was helpful, plus the scope and amount of the work quickly grew, and in 2011 the RCP became a two-course sequence – JS 140 and JS 141.
What was the inspiration for this program?
I taught for 12 years in clinical programs at Stanford and Santa Clara Law Schools, and when I started teaching at the undergraduate level, it occurred to me that undergrads should have opportunities to do clinical work too. I am not aware of any other undergraduate ‘clinical’ legal programs in the country.
Law school clinics involve teaching the skills and providing the perspective on the legal work that is needed. The main difference is that law students can stand up in court to represent their clients, while undergrads can attend court and support their clients but not formally represent them.
The law school clinics I worked in were based in communities and set up to respond to community need. In 2005, when I was teaching at Stanford’s community law clinic in East Palo Alto, Dorsey Nunn of the community group All of Us or None, approached our clinic and highlighted the need for record clearance work. As a low-wage worker attorney, I saw how a past conviction affected a person’s opportunities for work, so I knew this was important work. I didn’t realize how important and life-changing record clearance work was until I became immersed in this work and learned from our clients how a past mistake could haunt someone for decades.
How did the partnership between CommUniverCity and RCP first take form?
It has always been my view as a community-based attorney that community needs should drive the work I did. As a teacher, I have felt the important thing is to use my experience to help shine a light on the ways in which students can use their energy, knowledge and fresh thinking in service to others. When I heard about CommUniverCity, it immediately resonated as a structure set up to do exactly the type of work that I believe in: educate students to use the law to assist others.
The students see the lack of access to legal services that low-income community members face, and understand the critical importance of their education and work to bring legal rights to those who need them. CommUniverCity – through the record clearance project – makes access to justice a reality for our community, thus enriching us all.
As a professor, what has been the most rewarding aspect of RCP?
It has been extraordinarily rewarding to give students the tools to help change someone’s life. How many undergrads can truthfully say that, as a result of their coursework, they have changed someone’s life? I love helping students recognize the power of the law to make a difference, and the power of their work and dedication to enable that to happen.
What do you think your students take away from their involvement with RCP?
When a client tells a student, ‘you gave me my life back,’ that’s pretty hard to beat in terms of using one’s education to make a difference.
The students see what they can do for others. Last week we held a drop-in advice clinic called a ‘speed screening’ in which students inform individuals regarding their next steps in the expungement process. Two students were able to help a woman with a 30-year-old conviction clear her record. They helped her to fill out a form to have it dismissed since the law didn’t require a court appearance. It took five minutes. Another client thought he had a felony, but was ecstatic when the students pointed out that he didn’t – his conviction was a misdemeanor. He’d been answering job application questions incorrectly for years.
One outstanding thing about undergrads is that they are open to experience and willing to re-examine what they thought they knew. Many come to the record clearance project – like all of us – with preconceptions of who ‘criminals’ are. Then they meet their clients and their views change. Recently, after giving a presentation on expungement law to people in jail, one student explained his law enforcement perspective and wrote the following in his paper:
“Before the record clearance project, my views on criminal punishment were black and white. If one could do the crime, they should be able to do the time. I only enrolled in RCP to fulfill my internship requirements for graduation: at no point did I think I was going to be inspired by my work, moved by the life stories of others, or have my point of view of criminal punishment changed. However all of this did occur, and it began with meeting and listening to those who have gone through the program and have gotten their records cleared.
I saw hope return to some of the inmates. Hope that they could turn their lives around and hope that their criminal records wouldn’t follow them the rest of their lives. And to be part of the reason that hope was restored in those incarcerated persons not only filled me with pride and inspiration, but provided me with motivation to continue with the RCP to the best of my abilities.
This only continued in my second semester in the RCP. My client was an inspiration:she is a veteran of the Marine Corps, was a young single mother, created and directed programs that helped young single mothers, and is a breast cancer survivor. The fact that I was able to help her get her twenty-year-old conviction off of her record was an honor. Her life story was not only an inspiration to me, but also an inspiration to all that heard it, including the judge that granted her expungement.”
What have been the biggest challenges in coordinating this program?
The sheer volume of the work has been enormously challenging. There is so much need, and so many things that students can do that managing it all can be overwhelming. We have no full-time staff, and yet we have leveraged over 10,000 hours of uncompensated work a year.
The RCP has an outstanding success rate in court, and an exceptionally low recidivism rate among people we assist in jail. We have given 165 community education presentations on expungement law and legal rights to over 6,100 people.
CommUniverCity has been a life-saver by enabling the Record Clearance Project to hire student staff and keep going.
How would you like to see the RCP evolve in the future?
There is enormous potential for the RCP to meet unmet community needs. There are systemic changes that need to be addressed. The RCP has a detailed database, and with seven years of experience, we have a lot to offer in terms of policy recommendations. For example, many jail convictions must be dismissed – indeed 20% of the thousands of convictions we see at Speed Screenings require only that a person fill out a simple form. They don’t have to go to court. But people don’t know about this law: 93 % of the 1,931 people we polled in jail didn’t know this. If a conviction must be dismissed by law, it should happen automatically, not require that a person apply.
I would love to highlight more of the amazing people who have been served by RCP. I’d also love to follow-up with our students who have gone on to the workforce – how has the record clearance project work made a difference in their approach to their work? And lastly, I’d love to replicate the program in other campuses so more clients and more students can benefit from the groundwork we have done and adapt it to meet their own needs.