Most people have a few regrettable mistakes they made as teenagers or young adults that they would like to forget, but not everyone is so lucky.
Some people are constantly reminded of their choices as the consequences follow them day-to-day, weighing them down like a ball and chain they can’t detach.
"It's like carrying around a trash bag," said Cheryl Lozano, a former delinquent whose multiple drug-related convictions haunted her for years. "You no longer reflect that person you were before."
However, a rapidly growing program at SJSU is working to cut the chains of decade-old convictions and allow rehabilitated felons a chance to clear their records.
The Record Clearance Project gives students real-life attorney experience and allows them to screen low-income clients and help prepare petitions, review rap sheets and ultimately get criminal records expunged.
The program began in 2008 as a class project designed for a courts and society class by justice studies professor Peggy Stevenson.
“It made sense (for students) to have real life experience,” Stevenson said.
She said once community members began to learn about this free service, the program quickly expanded.
Stevenson said, as of 2010, the Records Clearance Project has been a two-course project for students — a project which requires two separate classes before the project is complete.
The first course teaches students how to conduct presentations and interviews, while a second course teaches them how to assist people in preparing petitions for court.
According to Stevenson, the Records Clearance Project had six clients during its first semester.
“So far this semester we’ve had 18 clients,” she said.
She estimates that the group will have helped about 30 clients by the end of the semester.
The group routinely holds speed screenings for potential clients.
Alanna Hayman, Record Clearance Project member and a senior pre-law major, said people come to the screenings to sit down with two student teams that go over the client's rap sheet and other information they may bring with them.
“We tell them which of their convictions can be expunged,” she said.
Potential client Jack Salmon said he has a felony from a first-degree burglary charge on his record that has troubled him for more than 15 years, making it difficult for him to get a job.
According to Salmon, a nonprofit organization called Downtown Streets Team connected him to the Record Clearance Project.
He said the organization targets homeless or other struggling community members and helps them get back on their feet.
“When I saw the judge 15 years ago when he convicted me, he said ‘If you ever get an opportunity to come to my courtroom with the right paperwork, I’ll expunge your record.’”
Salmon said he never forgot those words.
“I’ve been thinking about it forever and I’ve never actually done it," he said. "Now that the service is offered through the university, I think it’s great.”
According to Stevenson, the screenings are run by the approximately 38 Record Clearance Project student members, as well as alumni and volunteers.
Hayman said her first experience interviewing a potential client was nerve-wracking.
“It was scary at first, being a student and trying to learn all of this information,” she said. “Once you learn all of it and you get to sit down at the speed screening … it makes you feel good about yourself.”
Jesse Medina, a Records Clearance Project intern and a senior justice studies major, said he recently gave a presentation about the Records Clearance Project at Elmwood jail which is a routine experience for Record Clearance Project students.
“Many people have done at least six to eight presentations,” he said.
According to Stevenson, former clients who have benefited from the Records Clearance Project’s services sometimes accompany them when they give presentations at the jail.
The circle of appreciation is mutual, with inmates appreciating the Record Clearance Project presentations that "give them hope" and former clients appreciating the students’ efforts to inform inmates, according to Stevenson.
“Amazing things can happen when we’re all working together,” she said.
Medina said most students’ efforts are voluntary rather than obligatory.
Students are required to put in 120 hours of work with the Record Clearance Project, but Medina said for most students, it ends up being double that amount.
“Everybody does way more hours than they need,” he said.
Salmon said he first interacted with Records Clearance Project students during a presentation they gave at an orientation for potential clients, and was impressed by their delivery.
“I got a chance to meet a lot of them at their presentation … They give you lots of information,” he said. “They did really well.”
He predicts the students’ services will be in high demand if word keeps spreading and client numbers will continue to increase.
Lozano knows firsthand the life changing experience of getting a criminal record expunged.
As a mother of six, Lozano had been troubled for years by charges for possession, being under the influence and petty theft dating back to the 1980s.
Before discovering the Records Clearance Project, Lozano said she had already begun making positive changes in her life.
“I needed to totally change … to be successful for my son,” she said. “My education needed to come first.”
Lozano obtained a sociology degree from Evergreen Community College and went on to study at the National Hispanic University, but her record severely limited her ability to get a job.
“I’ve gotten turned away from many jobs,” Lozano said.
Lozano said she was introduced to the Record Clearance Project after a program at Cathedral of Faith Church in 2010 and two years later she was cleared of all her charges.
“I was already on a good path,” she said. “This program was the icing on the cake.”
Lozano said she will be attending SJSU in the fall to further study sociology and the Record Clearance Project “made it possible” for her to achieve her goals.
Several Record Clearance Project students and volunteers said being able to change the lives of clients is one of the program’s most rewarding aspects.
Hayman said the first time she exited the courtroom with her newly cleared client, they both cried.
She said it was an overwhelming feeling “knowing I helped her do that.”
Stevenson said the Record Clearance Project gives people hope and second chances.
She said she loves to see “students recognizing their own abilities and making a difference."
Marcela Enriquez, a senior justice studies major, said she doubted that joining the Record Clearance Project would have as much of an impact on her life as it did.
“Because of the RCP, I actually decided to stay in school and finish my bachelor's," she said. "For me, it’s been a life changing experience.”
In addition to inspiring her to continue her education, Enriquez said the Record Clearance Project gave her a new perspective.
“It’s made me very humble and helped me not to judge people, especially criminals,” Enriquez said. “Through the RCP I’ve been able to see that people do commit crimes, but they’re merely mistakes and they should be given a second chance.”
Hayman says the Record Clearance Project has helped her learn the necessary skills to be an attorney, which is her ultimate goal.
“The most rewarding thing is when the judge says, ‘your client is rehabilitated’,” she said.
Medina said a successful courtroom outcome can be the most exhilarating experience for students and clients alike.
“They (clients) stand taller," he said. "They can move forward … with confidence,” he said.
According to Medina, it’s hard to put a price on the experience.
“When the judge expunges your client’s record, they walk out and you see the gratitude exude from them,” Medina said. “Money can’t buy that.”