“Fear isn’t holding me back as much”
Luke is the father of two boys. One is three years old, the other seven. He works for a subcontracting company in the East Bay, where he spoke to us by phone from the company’s warehouse. “We’re still working during the pandemic,” he explained. “A lot of staff are working from home right now. Some of the warehouse guys are getting half days so that we can keep a distance. It’s not enough hours right now, but we’re grateful that we can keep working.”
Luke explained that he’d “started working from the bottom” to get this job. “I was born and raised in Oakland. I’ve been here all my life. I went to all Oakland schools. I was good in school but started getting in trouble outside. The first time I went to jail I had no children so it didn’t faze me. I got probation and was working. The second time I had a son (my oldest) and it was hard for him to see me in there, not getting bailed out. It changed me. I realized I was hurting my son. He was crying when he came to see me. I told myself, ‘When I get out, I’m going to get a job, fix my credit, and be there for my son,’ because my own dad was in and out of jail. We don’t have a close bond but as an adult I started talking to him. I was going back and forth to court for a year or two. I got time served and felony probation. I started working, staying out of trouble, and busting my [butt] at every job.”
Luke realized that, despite his hard work and determination, he couldn’t advance to jobs with better pay, better benefits, or better hours because of his criminal record. “They would say, ‘Well, you have these two background charges. If you just had one, it might be different.’ I was like, aw man, I need to get one of those expunged. I called a probation officer who referred me to BayLegal. I reached [BayLegal attorney] Rachel [Hoerger] from there. She’s an amazing person, she was there for me every step of the way.”
Rachel helped Luke to get his probation dismissed early, which allowed him to live free from probation for the first time in 10 years. She helped him to clean up his entire record, which cleared the way for him to land steadier and more stable work.
“I don’t have the same fear I had before,” Luke says of living with a clean record. “I don’t have a fear no more of being pulled over. Because when you’re on probation and you get pulled over, even for something small like a taillight, they have to pull you out of the car, handcuff you, and you have to sit in the back of the police car. That happened to me before, and it scared my kids, they were crying. Now I don’t fear that. I don’t fear not having the same opportunities as everyone. Fear isn’t holding me back as much.”
BayLegal’s Reentry Unit
BayLegal’s Reentry Unit consists of four staff attorneys: Stacey Guillory, who is the Regional Coordinator for the unit, Catherine Kimel, Rachel Hoerger, and Andrea Crider. Their practice is split between Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, where BayLegal currently receives dedicated funding to support the work. The team is also fortunate to have the support of Rob Biniaz, who has provided critical pro bono assistance. These advocates focus on ensuring that people reentering our Bay Area communities from prison or jail have the ability to lead the fullest lives possible and contribute their full potential to our community and their families, free from the multitude of legal barriers that so often follow them after incarceration.
People seeking to overcome a criminal conviction or arrest history are often rejected from jobs and housing due to criminal background checks; they are caught in webs of court fines and fees that keep them from being able to restart their lives; and they face severe consequences from court debt collection measures, which often include wage garnishment, bank levies, and compounding debts due to an inability to pay.
People reentering their communities also face drivers’ license suspensions (a sanction measure commonly used by courts), which can create huge obstacles to stability. Lack of access to a driver’s license can prevent someone from getting employment, public benefits, mental health services, or healthcare, among other services. In California, for instance, more than 17 percent of adults have suspended licenses that “make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, harm credit ratings and raise public safety concerns.”
Stacey points out that it is important to recognize the structural racism that has built and remains embedded within the criminal justice system. It is a system with roots in slavery which inordinately impacts Black, Latinx, and other communities of color. “Racial injustice is what drives this because of the disproportionate impact of incarceration on people of color,” she explains. “This work addresses that in particular: we are trying to right the inequity in their lives…. It’s also important to remember that the work we are doing with individuals affects people generations later. We’re helping not only individuals but the other people in their lives who will be positively impacted by their success.”
Origins of BayLegal’s Reentry Practice
The Reentry Unit was founded in 2010 by BayLegal attorney Adam Poe (now Managing Attorney of BayLegal’s Contra Costa County Regional office). Adam explains that it was his experience working as a housing attorney at BayLegal that inspired him to build a bridge to reentry law within the firm. “I remember having a client who was denied from public housing with the Richmond Housing Authority for a bunch of arrests,” Adam says. “They weren’t even convictions. I couldn’t believe they were allowed to do that, but I did my research, and they were. That idea was really offensive to me. He was a homeless, disabled individual with mental health issues and substance abuse issues. Most of his arrests were related to that. That was when I realized that the inequities and racism that exist in the criminal justice system carried over into BayLegal’s work and were related to my work as a housing attorney.”
Adam says that he met a “critical mass of people who were aligned around providing services to folks coming out of incarceration” while meeting clients at probation meetings in Contra Costa County. Those community partners were everyone “from substance abuse counselors, legal service providers, to employment development professionals.” The partnerships forged at those meetings eventually “spun into a formal planning process [and]… eventually a much more formalized group,” which created the Contra Costa County Reentry System Strategic Plan.
This was a comprehensive document that described what tools someone would need to reenter society successfully, and it allowed the county to apply for funding from the Second Chance Act. “Around that time,” Adam says, “the next big development was Plata v. Brown”—the landmark Supreme Court case on prison overcrowding in California, which was litigated by a team of lawyers at the Prison Law Office including Rebekah Evenson, who is now BayLegal’s Director of Litigation and Advocacy (and soon to serve on the bench of the Alameda County Superior Court).
“It was amazing to me how transformative that case was not only because it mandated a reduction in the prison population,” Adam says, “but also because it resulted in the funding of community programs that in part contributed to community-based services as opposed to incarceration.” That funding “has allowed us to do great work around reentry, and filled the gaps left by funding from the Second Chance Act.” That funding has allowed the reentry team to serve clients like Luke across Contra Costa and Alameda Counties.
The Burden of Fines and Fees
Because so many of the reentry team’s clients are adversely affected by criminal justice fines and fees, the unit has worked to remedy the unjustly punitive consequences of those measures at the levels of both community and individual advocacy.
Andrea worked in coalition with the Reentry Solutions Group and Rubicon Programs, and in partnership with Contra Costa County officials including the District Attorney, bringing to light the stories of our clients impacted by burdensome fines and fees. The county responded by imposing an indefinite moratorium on criminal justice fines and fees. Officials will gather data to understand the ways that mounting debt from fines and fees, aggressive collection practices, and the fee waiver system pose severe challenges to low-income communities, and particularly communities of color.
The individual impact of court debt—imposed at both the state and local levels—can be seen throughout their practice. For instance, Andrea recently assisted a client whose minimum-wage paycheck was being garnished by the state to pay for thousands of dollars in fines and fees. After paying rent and basic car costs, the garnishments meant her client had little money left to pay for food or other necessities. Andrea filed a successful motion to the court demonstrating her rehabilitation, which protected her client from having to pay thousands of dollars in fines and enabled her to overcome her criminal record. Stacey, in another recent case, helped a client to overcome over $10,000 in court debt, and she continues to advocate for further reductions in the garnishment of his wages.
One of Rachel’s clients, Willie, explains how even a minor infraction citation can leave people burdened with hundreds of dollars in fines and fees. He describes a period of homelessness, during which he was experiencing untreated mental illness and resulting periods of incarceration. He was released to the streets and again found himself without shelter. He says he started to sleep on BART trains when he had no other place to keep him safe. He received thousands of dollars in fines from BART citations during that time, which he was unable to pay because he had no source of income. Since getting the fines and fees dismissed, and now that his record is cleared, he has been able to find stable shelter, he has access to healthcare and supportive services, and he is close to receiving his high school diploma.
He says that getting help from BayLegal “took a big burden off my back,” because he knew that he would be subject to discrimination for his criminal record when applying for jobs. Willie says that his dream of working as a graphic artist now feels closer within reach.
‘[T]here is more of a chance that people will believe in me….”
The reentry team also works to dismantle the legal barriers that follow immigrant human trafficking survivors, creating pathways to protected legal status and greater opportunity for them to lead safe and stable lives in the US.
Briana is the mother of four young children. She came to the US over a decade ago, from Central America. She was smuggled into the country by a human trafficker and was referred to BayLegal by the American Bar Association’s Survivor Reentry Project. “When I got in contact with BayLegal, I had an eight-year-old child with autism,” she says. “He’s now nine years old, but before that I was being manipulated by someone. Well, these are hard things to talk about. But for that reason I went to jail in San Francisco.”
Catherine drafted and argued successful motions to seal and destroy records of Briana’s convictions and arrests, paving the way for her to obtain legal status in the US so she can continue to live safely and independently, free from the violence and manipulation of her abuser. “Well, I’m doing okay, thanks to God, because I’ve survived so many things and because they cleaned my record. Before, with a marred record, I was denied housing. With a clean record there is more of a chance that people will believe in me, more of a chance for me to find work and housing.”
Briana is grateful that her chances of employment have increased with a cleared record. But she explains that the Covid-19 crisis has now caused her work opportunities to dwindle, and she must prioritize caring for her kids, one of whom has an autoimmune disorder. “In my child’s situation, he has to stay inside. He can’t go out and play, and I have to be even more careful with my other children because he can get sick so easily. There is less opportunity to find work. This is such a hard situation.”
Advocacy During the Covid-19 Crisis
As the nation faces the public health and economic crisis wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the reentry team has witnessed multiple barriers arise for their clients, alongside paradoxical opportunities. Many of their clients’ cases remain in limbo due to court closures, for instance. As a result, Stacey, Catherine, and Andrea assisted with a letter to the Judicial Counsel, which requested feedback from the legal services community on how court procedures and policies were impacting our clients. They were able to specifically raise issues regarding necessary social distancing measures for their clients. They have also been instrumental in the firm’s advocacy push with local officials to reduce hazardous overcrowding conditions in jails and to protect the due process rights of people who are detained.
On the other hand, many more reentry clients are essential workers who have seen job opportunities increase as the demand for food delivery and grocery store workers has surged. One of Stacey’s clients, for example, recently found work as a meal delivery driver for a national chain. One of Catherine’s clients has continued to report to work at Target, where he recently received a raise and promotion. One of Rachel’s clients recently began working as a food delivery driver and has several other delivery positions pending—all of which became available to her only after they were able to remove an erroneously reported arrest from her background check.
The team explains that this is a strange duality to navigate. While Covid-19 has presented some barriers to advancement for their clients, the fact that others are now being hired attests to the argument that the team has been making all along: that their clients have so much to contribute to our communities, if they could only be freed from discrimination and the legal barriers that obstruct their paths forward. That these employment opportunities are being presented to their clients at a time when Black and Latinx communities are being hit hardest by the Covid-19 crisis—in part because those communities are such a large part of the service sector—is a difficult paradox to bear.
Andrea anticipates that, as prisons and jails begin to release incarcerated people to stem the spread of Covid-19, the unit could see an uptick in people requesting help to find housing or obtain access to employment. “We are usually the first providers for people seeking housing and employment,” she says. “I have a feeling it’s going to ramp up big-time.”