Reformed offenders earn fresh starts 

click to enlarge An expunged criminal record helped former junkie Joe Clifford become a novelist and editor. - CAMILA BERNAL/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Camila Bernal/Special to The S.F. Examiner
  • An expunged criminal record helped former junkie Joe Clifford become a novelist and editor.

If you do the crime, you should be prepared to do the time.

While that's a variation on the adage made famous in the detective drama "Baretta," it's often not the case in reality.

Many people who are either arrested on suspicion of or convicted of a criminal offense are punished long after they have paid their debts to society, according to Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

He's referring to jobs and how applicants' criminal pasts can haunt them in an increasingly competitive employment market.

However, there is one avenue offered by the Public Defender's Office that is not widely known.

Clean Slate is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.

The program that expunges the records of those who have completed their sentences has grown exponentially since Adachi made it a priority in the mid-1990s as chief attorney of the office he now heads.

In 1995, the office expunged about 50 criminal records annually, Adachi said. Unhappy with that output, the public defender assigned an attorney to handle the cases and arranged for community meetings to encourage more applicants.

Since then, more than 20,000 records, or about 2,000 annually, have been cleared.

"We had people who had a conviction 30 years ago who would show up and say, 'I want a fresh start,'" Adachi said.

These people are not hardened criminals bound to re-offend. Some might have had a DUI conviction, while others might have been arrested but were never charged with a crime.

The advent of technology has made it far easier for employers and landlords to dig up dirt from your past, said Diana Rosenstein, the attorney who runs Clean Slate.

"Most people [aided by Clean Slate] are looking for a job or housing," Rosenstein said.

Applicants for jobs in health care and government are particularly affected. Also, legal immigrants can be barred from gaining citizenship, Rosenstein said.

To be eligible for Clean Slate, participants must be off probation or parole and cannot have a pending criminal case. In more serious cases, such as those involving state prison sentences, the participant can’t have their conviction expunged unless they are a law-abiding California resident for seven years and the governor pardons them. For less serious convictions, a judge can dismiss the case. It takes an average of three to six months to get a person’s convictions dismissed by a judge, Rosenstein said.

The names, faces and histories vary widely. One woman credits Clean Slate for helping her attain her nursing license, while a man says the program helped him go from homeless junkie to accomplished novelist. Here are some of their stories:

A man who had dreams of being a rock star moved to San Francisco in 1991. Joe Clifford ended up becoming a drug addict instead, then plummeted into homelessness and crime.

At one point he was recruited by fraudsters to cash bad checks.

"They were stealing corporate account numbers from dumpsters downtown and printing checks on a home computer," Clifford, now 43, told The San Francisco Examiner. "Then they'd have an endless parade of dumb junkies like me who would go into banks and try to cash them."

The gig worked well for a while, but then Clifford and his girlfriend were arrested at a supermarket bank. The two were sentenced to the Sheriff's Department Work Alternative Program, but Clifford said they were "too strung out to pull that off." Instead, he fled the state.

After years of battling addiction, Clifford entered a long-term treatment program that included a six-month lockdown.

"I really applied myself," he said. "I read a novel a day for 50 days straight. I worked with counselors. I knew I had to get better."

As part of rehab, Clifford returned to school and made education "his new drug."

"I edited the school literary magazine, made the dean's list, joined the honor society," he said.

But a 3.96 grade-point average meant little for a man with a felony warrant hanging over his head. He couldn't even apply for a driver's license.

Clifford said he then learned about the Clean Slate program. After submitting his college transcripts and letters of recommendation from his professors, his record was expunged.

Today, the Portland, Ore., resident is a father who has published three novels and works as an acquisitions editor for a publishing company.

"It has been well over a decade since I gave up that drug lifestyle and returned to the land of the living," Clifford said. "I can honestly say none of this would've been possible without the Clean Slate program."

Haunted by mistake of another

Another man who successfully completed Clean Slate had never been in trouble with the law until 1995, when he was arrested after a passenger in his car was caught with crack cocaine, according to Diana Rosenstein. The man had picked up the passenger, a handyman, to help him with yard work.

When he was pulled over by police, the man learned that his passenger was on probation, allowing police to search the car. A small bag of crack was found under the passenger's seat, and the passenger was found in possession of a crack pipe.

The officers apparently could not determine to whom the discarded baggie belonged, so both men were arrested.

Prosecutors soon dismissed the charges against the driver, but not on the grounds that he was innocent. They said there was an "insufficient quantity of the prohibited substance" to pursue charges, the man said.

"I thought it was just legal jargon or semantics to avoid saying they found no drugs," said the 69-year-old.

At the time, he had held a job for 11 years and kept it for almost five more years until his employer downsized. It was after he took a civil service clerical test and went for a government job that the past arrest surfaced.

One job the man applied for required fingerprinting, he said, and the results stated that he had two open felonies on his record.

"The thought of my having a rap sheet was jarring and difficult for me to comprehend," he said.

The man would eventually earn that job, but it wasn't easy. He had to take multiple trips to the police station to fetch documents proving he had no felonies. And to make matters worse, it was a contract position, and once it was over the arrest-record woes resumed.

"Some job applications have asked to divulge an arrest record even if it did not result in a conviction," the man said. "This is mostly for positions in hospitals or situations where narcotic drugs were on the premises, even though I was looking for clerical or administrative positions and wouldn't personally be handling drugs."

He also could not take a notary test due to his arrest record.

"Of course, if it was ever a deciding factor in not being chosen for a job, I wouldn't be told that," the man said. "But it was something of a dark cloud in my mind when applying for jobs."

After finally turning to Clean Slate, his record was expunged.

No longer paying for DUI mistake

A 30-year-old woman who also went through the program was well on her way to becoming a pediatric nurse when a DUI conviction from 1994 came back to bite her.

She was in her early 20s when she committed the crime. She did "beautifully" on probation, Rosenstein said, and has since had no "blips on her radar."

The woman went on to earn a master's degree in nursing, but was denied her nursing license due to the conviction, Rosenstein said.

The Clean Slate program helped her get that nursing license.

"The judge gladly dismissed it," Rosenstein said.

Pin It
Favorite

Latest in Crime & Courts

Friday, Aug 28, 2015

Videos

Related to Crime & Courts

Most Popular Stories

© 2015 The San Francisco Examiner

Website powered by Foundation