News | From the Clean Slate Clearinghouse

Get to Know the Expert: Margaret Stevenson

May 24, 2018

"We’ve talked to [more than] 3,100 people in custody, and 92 percent of them did not know even the basics about their rights to clear their records."

By Rashawn Davis, CSG Justice Center staff

The Clean Slate Clearinghouse (CSC) Advisory Committee—which consists of legal and academic experts from around the country—works to make the CSC a mechanism to expand record clearance nationwide. The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center staff spoke with advisory committee member Margaret "Peggy" Stevenson, the director of the San Jose State University (SJSU) Record Clearance Project (RCP) in San Jose, California. Since 2008, RCP has trained undergraduate students to assist people with criminal records throughout the expungement process.

How did you get involved with record clearance?

I was a legal services lawyer for 10 years in different offices around the country. My focus was primarily on low wage worker’s rights, not anything dealing with criminal records. However, clients would often tell me that they couldn’t get a job because they had a criminal record.

In 2005, while I was working in East Palo Alto at a community law center, a woman from the group All of Us or None visited. She said that if our law center was truly a community law center, then we needed to be more reflective of the needs of the community, and that meant doing record clearance work. She was right. Although we didn’t know much about record clearance and few legal service providers were doing that work at the time, we learned. And I did record clearance work in East Palo Alto for a couple of years before I started teaching here at San Jose State University.

Why an undergraduate expungement clinic?

I thought, if law students could do this, why can’t undergrads?

We started doing expungement petitions as a class project in the Courts and Society class I taught at SJSU. Within three years, we had developed an entire course sequence around criminal record clearance.

In the first class of the course sequence, Record Clearance Project – Practical Legal Skills, we teach students legal research, legal interviewing, and how to do community education presentations that inform people about expungement laws [in California]. In the second class, Record Clearance Project – Representation, students are assigned clients whom they assist with preparing expungement petitions for court.

What do you say to people who are skeptical of undergraduates doing this work?

I wasn’t sure about it myself, but it really seems to work. Undergraduate students in RCP have assisted with [more than] 1,300 expungement petitions and 99 percent of them have been granted. Undergraduates are outstanding interviewers; they are motivated and sincere. Stanford and Columbia Law School students volunteer on occasion to work at the RCP. When they are paired with RCP students, law students always say how much they admire the work of our undergraduates.

What are some ways that RCP has evolved and expanded over the years?

All our work is need-driven.

We bought a LiveScani machine so that clients, who would come to our advice sessions but didn’t know what was on their records, could learn about their records without having to pay for a copy.

We started going to jails in 2012 because we felt that people needed to know record clearance information before they were released. We’ve talked to [more than] 3,100 people in custody, and 92 percent of them did not know even the basics about their rights to clear their records.

When people being released needed guidance to help them get ready to apply for expungement, we hired former clients as mentors to guide them on their journey.

Are there any moments in this work that have personally inspired you?

Once we were talking to a group of men at Elmwood jail, and I shared that as part of the expungement process, petitioners explain to the judge their story and how they are moving forward with their lives. I asked people to throw out ideas about what some people’s turning points might be.

And someone stood up and said, “being here.” I thought he meant the experience of being sent to jail would motivate people to change. But that wasn’t it–many of them had been to jail before. [He] followed up saying, “you all have given us hope, what you have told us about our rights has given me hope. This is my turning point.” Remembering that moment always gets me emotional. It was pretty powerful.

What do you see on the horizon for record clearance?

I am a perpetual optimist. In California, there have been great legislative advances around record clearance and I feel that once other jurisdictions in the country begin to see what works, we will see record clearance expand. And I hope that California will be able to help set that stage.

i LiveScan machines, often used by law enforcement agencies, can use fingerprints to access the user’s criminal history.