By Sarah Hurwitz
PORTLAND, OR (KPTV) –
The City of Portland plans to launch its first pilot program designed to help people expunge their criminal records in an effort to give them access to better housing options.
A city spokesperson tells FOX 12 the initiative comes from Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office with a focus on how the criminal justice system marginalizes communities of color.
Rosalee Anderson, 34, who is a biracial single mother of three, is an example of someone who would benefit from the program.
Anderson is already working to expunge her criminal record through a program partnership between Home Forward, a nonprofit formerly known as the Housing Authority of Portland, and the Metropolitan Public Defender’s Office Community Law Division.
Anderson’s journey hasn’t been easy though, as she recounted painful times while looking at old pictures Thursday afternoon.
“I remember one situation that kind of rerouted my mind to do things the wrong way,” Anderson said. “Left in a house that people were selling drugs and an incident happened really bad and us kids were forced to watch.”
The trauma happened early in her life and that she says is what catapulted her into a life of crime.
“I used to tell my mom that most my memories were bad memories, I didn’t remember the good ones. It took me a long time, my anger had gotten control so it blocked out anything good,” Anderson said.
She was living in Rockwood at the age of 12 when she got her first violation on her record for gang-related activity. Then, at 19, she was arrested for forging her own identity.
In both cases, she says she was told by attorneys and the court system that they’d be easy to clear from her record, but they stayed on her record years beyond when she committed the crimes and she owed thousands of dollars in fines.
She says she tried to turn her life around, but she says it was difficult to not fall back into the gang life.
“Started selling drugs, how was I going to pay for all these things?” Anderson said.
And then, at 22, it was the worst charge yet: delivery of heroin.
“He got out of the car, did what he had to do, and I’m on the phone the whole time not even paying attention and I went to reverse and all of a sudden my car was swarmed with about 15 cops,” Anderson said. “I was angry at my past, I was angry at my family, my mom my dad I just believed that it was all their fault everything. I didn’t really get that you make your own future,” she said, describing why she got involved in gangs.
But she did make her own future. It’s been 12 years since that conviction.
She’s a single mom working in gang outreach for Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, or POIC.
She says she wants the best for her girls, but a major hurdle has been finding good housing. She says she hasn’t found much luck with landlords.
“They knew my record and it was like automatically no. it’d been years and no, no, no no,” Anderson said.
Anderson isn’t alone.
Staff Attorney Sonja Good Stefani with the Metropolitan Public Defender’s Office Community Law Division says it’s an uphill battle for people with a criminal past.
“It’s very difficult to get out of public housing with a criminal record because Portland’s housing market is so tight right now and it’s so easy for landlords to just run a background check and if you’ve got anything on there, anything at all even arrests they’re just no we’re not going to rent to you because we have a million other people that we could rent to,” Good Stefani said.
Good Stefani has been working extensively with Anderson through a similar program to what the City of Portland is piloting this year, giving free legal services to people living in public housing and a chance at expunging their criminal record.
In many cases, people in these programs can’t afford the fines or legal fees they’re facing either, so the partnerships give people the chance to the pay back the money through community service.
The city says it’s in the early stages of developing the program but plans to help roughly 100 households in similar situations to Anderson.
Anderson currently filed for expungement for some of her convictions, which can take months. But she says it’s worth it.
“At the end of the day, if people keep saying you are your record, you are your past you are that criminal even though I’m 12 years this December, I haven’t been in trouble,” Anderson said. “I’ve tried to live a life that shows my kids that there’s more. I don’t want them to grow up thinking the same mentality that I was believing.”
That delivery of heroin charge cannot be expunged through the normal process and Anderson plans to apply for a governor’s pardon, which Good Stefani says is even more lengthy and typically requires a 150-page paper detailing your life and the steps you’ve taken to make positive changes.
Good Stefani is confident Anderson will be pardoned. The city will begin development of the project this summer.
Once it starts, it will evaluate the results of the pilot after 12 to 18 months.