In February, Juan Bretado was let go from his most recent job.
The reason? A two-year-old warrant for driving with a suspended license he didn’t even know he had. It was discovered when his employer conducted a background check.
“We (my sister and I) tried to search online and we didn’t find anything. I even went to Norwalk (Courthouse), but nothing,” he says.
“But here, they found it right away.”
“Here” was an expungement clinic organized by the Los Angeles Reentry Partnership (LARRP) where volunteers from the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office help people like Bretado clear records and/or reduce felonies to misdemeanors.
The free events have been taking place for the past several years and also include representatives from housing and social services, to serve as a one-stop source for the participants.
“Between 40-50 people show up. It shows you the great need there is in LA,” says Joseph Petit, Policy & Program coordinator for LARRP.
The Past Impacts The Present
Bretado has other things he needs help with.
Nearly two decades ago he served time for check fraud and owes nearly $30,000 in child support payments (most of it interest) that accumulated while he was incarcerated.
“Nobody’s going to give me a loan like that,” he said, while trying to resolve that issue.
He tries to work, but his record keeps coming up in background checks and prospective employers can be turned off.
“They always find it,” says the 45-year-old man, who lives with his dad and suffers from diabetes.
Those problems have also impacted his personal life.
“My ex-girlfriend left me because she says, ‘you can’t make yourself responsible,’” Bretado said.
The volunteers at the clinic helped Bretado learn that the warrant for the check fraud was at the Long Beach Courthouse. They also gave him hope about changing his record from that $300 check fraud charge.
“Back then it was a felony and now it’s a misdemeanor. They were giving time like candy but thank God for these new laws,” Bretado said.
Public Defender’s Office Offers Help
Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative that was approved by voters in November 2014, re-categorized some nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors.
It’s helping many get a fresh start. Unfortunately, expungement clinics, like the one attended by Bretado, were stopped for safety reasons due to the pandemic. But that should not discourage people needing to clear old records from seeking help.
Thomas Moore, the county Head Deputy Public Defender for Collaborative Courts & Restorative Justice, says this is the time for people to take advantage of the free help offered by his office for a process that can be onerous and expensive if done on your own.
“We’ve expanded our virtual footprint,” Moore said, explaining they provide those services by communicating with people on the phone or via the computer.
“They can drop by and pick up forms, and court filings are still happening. But they are sluggish,” Moore admits. That’s because most non-essential court proceedings have been halted because of the pandemic.
So Moore and his colleagues are assisting those trying to clear traffic tickets, old warrants, minor drug charges and an assortment of non-violent crimes from people’s histories. Their office can also help clear probationary cases, provide certificates of rehabilitation and assist with reduction of sentences.
They’ll fill out forms and help with the process. But those who are eligible for crime sentence reductions through Prop. 47 must also appear in court.
“It’s so important for people to clear past records because they’re an obstacle to employment, housing and well-being in general,” Moore said. “Why should you carry along a warrant for a felony that can be reduced to a misdemeanor?”
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office announced the dismissal of 66,000 marijuana convictions under Proposition 64, a 2016 measure that legalized the possession and purchase of up to an ounce of marijuana and allowed people to grow as many as six plants for personal use.
But public defenders say the DA is not notifying the people who could benefit from this action. The Public Defenders office has set up a website and a phone number where people can check their eligibility.
No Record Is The Best Record
While Moore advocates for treatment instead of jail terms in appropriate instances, he said people must deal with past sentences that become an impediment to “move forward in life” and take the next step into the future.
“The problem with a record is that unless something proactive is done, it can stay forever,” he said.
Julio Cesar Ascensio knows this firsthand. He has eight tickets for driving with a suspended license, the last of which landed him in jail for 10 days when he was stopped and arrested in Santa Clarita last year.
“I’m a mechanic and you can’t work with a suspended license,” Ascensio said. “I was working at Volkswagen but they fired me a month after I started” because he was arrested.
“Now I have work, but it pays less and it’s a lot more work,” he confides.
Volunteers with the Public Defender’s office are helping him to clear those tickets.
“They’re going to help with the expungement without me having to go to court,” Ascensio said, all smiles.
The best part is, he won’t have to pay the $24,000 a private lawyer had quoted him for completing this process.
“He told me it would be $3,000 per ticket,” Ascensio said. “This is saving me a lot of money.”
For resources & information on services in Los Angeles visit: StepForwardCA.Com. For help in clearing past records, call the Public Defender’s Office, (213) 351-8248. The office has also set up a hotline, (323) 760-6763, for the public to call to obtain information and begin the marijuana convictions dismissal process if they qualify. The recorded number will direct people to the LA County Public Defender website at pubdef.lacounty.gov. Once there, people should click the “Cannabis Dismissals” tab. The website will give general information about the dismissals and people will be able to submit a fillable form with their contact and conviction information. Once received, a Record Clearing Unit presentative will reply.