(Originally published in Stanford News on January 24, 2019)
Stanford Law students put their training to work during a recent trip to Fresno, California, where they helped formerly incarcerated citizens move on with their lives.
The path to a fulfilling career is rarely easy to find and navigate. But for those attending Stanford Law School, the “Justice Bus” might get them there faster.
Four times a year, a handful of law students board a bus at Stanford and travel to a more rural part of California to provide pro bono legal services to isolated communities. The trip and mobile legal clinic, organized by the group OneJustice, offers students an opportunity to explore their legal interests while gaining valuable practical experience that serves the public good.
On a recent Saturday morning, 10 Stanford law students boarded the Justice Bus and drove three hours to Fresno, California, where they helped community members with criminal records understand their legal options. For some students, the trip was an initiation into the real-world life of a lawyer.
“The Justice Bus trip to Fresno was my very first opportunity to do something hands-on as part of my legal education,” said first-year law student Rachel Sohl.
Once there, the students received training and guidance from attorneys with the Fresno Public Defender’s Office and the group Root & Rebound, an Oakland-based nonprofit that provides public education and legal services to underserved communities. The students then met one-on-one with clients to assess their eligibility for various record clearance programs and help them apply for expungement.
Most of the clients’ past convictions were misdemeanors and “wobblers,” which are crimes that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Many of their convictions were for drug-related crimes, traffic violations or domestic violence, and several were decades old. “In many cases people had really turned their lives around, but were being haunted by convictions that continued to follow them and impact their lives,” Sohl said.
Each student, who was eager to learn and expressed a strong desire to give back, spent the day listening to clients tell their stories and explain their legal challenges.
“Everyone who came to the expungement clinic had a unique circumstance,” said third-year law student Emily Hayes. “But the one common factor was that every person was ready to put their past legal issues behind them and to begin a life unencumbered by the stigma and burden of past convictions.”
Criminal convictions can be enormous liabilities for many citizens who have served their time and attempt to reenter society. People who have experienced incarceration can find it difficult to access public assistance programs, such as food stamps, or find stable housing. One of the most common, and perhaps most significant, challenges they can face is landing a job.
A year ago, the California Fair Chance Act, also known as “Ban the Box,” went into effect. The legislation banned most employers from asking applicants about their conviction history before making a job offer. But Sohl said that some employers, who may uncover an applicant’s criminal past through a background check, continue to discriminate against formerly incarcerated applicants.
“When they can reenter society outside prison with jobs and stable housing, individuals with criminal convictions can move on,” Sohl said, noting that many crimes are economically motivated. “If our goal is to reduce crime, we should be increasing access to lawful employment, not restricting it.”
In all, the students informed 19 clients about their record clearance options, many of whom left prepared to submit their petitions for record expungement. Feedback from the event was overwhelmingly positive. According to OneJustice, one client, who could not be identified for legal reasons, said he was very grateful and impressed with the services he received. “It is amazing that there are still people that care and are willing to donate the time and resources for someone like myself,” the client said.
While many law students, particularly those in their first-year of law school, are still exploring options for legal careers, clinics like this offer valuable opportunities to narrow their interests. For Sohl, the OneJustice mobile clinic helped her realize how much she enjoys working directly with clients.
“I’m going to keep exploring, but now I know direct services would probably be a really satisfying path for me,” she said. “This experience changed how I’m thinking about which Stanford Law School clinic I’ll get involved in next year, and other opportunities I’ll pursue in law school and after.”