By Cecilia Le, University of Oregon
Third place winner of the third annual law student writing competition.
In order to help former offenders re-assimilate back into society, the criminal system and society as a whole need to change to support people who have a criminal history. Shows, movies, and institutionalized norms have portrayed criminals to be monsters or less than human due to their criminal history. However, society has to first acknowledge that people with criminal histories are regular people who have made mistakes and work to acknowledge the internalized stereotypes that have been placed upon this group of people. Our criminal system needs to support and fund programs that work on reform instead of punishing incarcerated individuals, so they learn skills or vocations to find jobs in after they are released. The first step is to change the way the system and society view these individuals. This would start by no longer punishing people with criminal histories after they are released based upon discrimination. The second step would be to provide more programs to help these individuals find jobs, obtain housing, and receive expungements after they are released.
In an effort to break the endless cycle where probation or parole violators are continuously thrown in jail for probation violations, the solution should be to prohibit jail time for any violations related to non-illegal activities. Probation rules are thrust upon a person when they are released and there needs to be reform to make the list of rules reasonable and programs that help people navigate this process. The legal system is not easy to understand for anyone, and this is especially prevalent to legal professionals who spend years learning about the law let alone for laypersons who may not have much education. The list of probation rules is long and difficult for people who have criminal histories to adhere to, which creates this vicious cycle. A method to potentially fix this problem would be to train or require education for probation Cecilia Le 1 officers to better understand the legalities of the probation system, so they can provide guidance to individuals on probation.
A typical requirement to prevent violation of probation is to pay off fees and restitution. However, if people with criminal histories cannot find jobs then they cannot support themselves much less pay the court fees. This causes the individual to spend more time and effort focusing on their past history and following probation rules instead of trying to move forward. As someone who has worked with people who have criminal histories, I believe the system needs to acknowledge the difficulties these people face after being released and give them a chance to re- assimilate instead of stacking the odds against their favor. They struggle to find a job, housing, and obtain government benefits. Without a job, these individuals cannot pay their fines and failing to pay fines is a violation of their probation, which would put them back in jail.
Thus, the system needs to be fixed so that failure to pay fines would result in other methods of punishment such as community service or there would be better stipulations to the probation rules such as not having fines payable until they have secured a job. Even with the court’s payment plan system, these usually start right away and require payment in full each month. However, without a job when they are first released and the difficulty in finding or retaining a job, they would not be able to make these payments. I believe there needs to be a system where individuals can ask a court to put payments on hold in the case of loss of job, family emergencies, or other reasons. This applies to other probation violations or issues people with criminal histories face. The system and society need to acknowledge the difficulties these individuals are facing and support rather than punish.
This is where our legal system needs to step in and change the way they perceive people with past criminal histories. Laws need to be changed to be more inclusive and prevent discrimination against these individuals. Programs should be in place to help individuals once they are released to find job and secure housing. The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles helps people with criminal histories through the expungement process and provides other support programs to help individuals. However, not every city or county has this service and there needs to be more in place for these individuals to have resources and support to help them re-establish themselves in society and prevent recidivism.
Furthermore, expungements should be readily available to eligible individuals who qualify. For some states such as Oregon, expungements require about a $200 filing fee with no option to petition for a fee waiver. This is a cycle in of itself as these individuals are seeking an expungement to be able to erase their record and find a better job. However, they are unable to pay the filing fee, which prohibits them from finding a job to pay the fee. Judges should grant fee waivers for individuals who are below certain incomes or have financial hardships in paying Cecilia Le 3 the fee. Expungements should not be based upon the discretion of a judge, but should automatically be granted if a person meets the criteria for expungement. This would speed up the expungement process and remove any underlying biases in the process.
Not only do we need to dedicate resources towards individuals who qualify by providing them assistance through the process, but also there needs to be more awareness and education about what expungements are and how they help. Courts and legal non-profits should work together to create informational posters and pamphlets, which would be available at the court to let people know expungement could be an option for them. Educational information sessions and seminars could be hosted to educate people on what an expungement can do for them, how to start the process, and resources they could look into to determine whether they would want to go forward. Prior to working at Community Legal Aid SoCal (Legal Aid), I did not know what an expungement was or understand how this process could change someone’s life. As I continued to volunteer at Legal Aid, my knowledge in this field expanded and I fell in love with this type of legal work. I was able to work with a client from the moment they opened an intake until their petition was approved. This area of public interest provided me a sense of satisfaction since I was able to use my skills to directly assist individuals in working towards a better life.
During a monthly expungement clinic, I was assigned to help a non-English speaking Vietnamese client with her petition. As we worked on her declaration, she began to tell me why she received these two misdemeanors for petty theft on her record. Her husband was a gambling and drinking addict who drove their family almost into a state of poverty with his addiction. Her children were still young, and she could not afford to keep a roof over their head and feed them Cecilia Le 4 with her low income. In order to feed her children, she resorted to stealing food from a supermarket in and was convicted.
After a couple years, she gained the courage and financial means to leave her husband. Now, she was turning to Legal Aid to help her expunge her record so that she could request government housing and aid. She also wanted to find a more stable job than hairdressing since her income varied depending on how many customers she had. She was so thankful for the help Legal Aid was providing to give her a second chance. Her story still resonates with me today and puts into perspective how former offenders can be defined by their convictions without a person truly knowing the reason or their story.
Prior to volunteering at Legal Aid, I did not realize how much judgment and scrutiny a person with a record could face. Our society tends to shun and outcast these types of people based on their past mistakes. A “criminal” is not always someone stereotypically portrayed in the media as an evil and dangerous person. A person with a criminal record could be anyone in life such as the Vietnamese client who was only trying to support her family. In attending law school, I not only want to provide assistance to these people who are struggling through a difficult period in their lives, but also reshape society’s perspective.
As I continue my journey through law school, my goal has not changed. I am working every day to contribute what I can to help the underrepresented, marginalized people in our society navigate the legal system and assure their access to basic human rights. I believe having enough lawyers and resources to promote and work on these cases is an important factor in a former offender’s ability to re-assimilate. Public defenders advocate for the individual prior to their conviction, but they do not have much help after they serve their sentence. Lawyers would be able to develop an attorney-client relationship with these individuals and provide information and advice to help them better understand the criminal legal process once they have finished their sentence.
If an individual is treated like a criminal, there is a high chance they will still act like a criminal since that is how society perceives them. High recidivism rates in the United States are not going to improve if people with criminal histories are continuously stigmatized and do not receive the proper support from the government or society. Reform starts by actually treating the prison system as a reformation process and not a punishment. Once these individuals are released then there needs to be programs to help them find jobs and housing, so they can establish themselves in society. Besides programs, employers and landlords need to change the way they view people who have criminal histories and be able to provide them a chance.