The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and Latino Task Force launched a partnership Thursday to more readily help Mission residents access the office’s Clean Slate program to “clean up” prior criminal records.
The service will be offered once a month at the Latino Task Force Essential Services Hub at 701 Alabama Street. Previously, individuals seeking Clean Slate services had to do so through the Public Defender’s Office on-site or online.
The services will be offered alongside other community resources for rent, employment and other help at the Alabama Hub, a model developed by Latino Task Force during the Covid-19 pandemic to fill critical service gaps in the hard-hit Latino community.
By “getting the conversation started in a neutral space … that is familiar to folks,” the hub-facilitated service will help ease initiating a process that can be complicated by the stigma of incarceration and distrust of the legal system, said Ivan Corado-Vega, a manager with the Latino Task Force.
“This is just another example of why we need to have resources centralized, why we need to have city departments and resources come to where the people are at,” he said.
Carmen Sanchez, a court alternative specialist with the Public Defender’s Immigration Defense Unit, works with individuals who have open immigration cases and leads the Clean Slate program. She also saw a unique need to raise awareness and expand the program to immigrant communities.
“Many people don’t know that a single conviction can have a big impact on our immigrant communities,” she added. “We’re saving people from being deported, and through these services also giving them a path towards citizenship,“ as well as stopping deportations and family separations.
Sanchez and others from the Public Defender’s Office were on-site Thursday to tour the Hub space at the Mission Language & Vocational School and discuss logistical details.
The start date has yet to be announced, but already Hub staff can assist individuals with accessing the Clean Slate application.
Eventually, the partnership will expand to the Latino Task Force hubs in the Bayview and Excelsior.
With exceptions for “patterns of conduct” related to domestic abuse, child abuse, and elder abuse charges, the program helps people with misdemeanor and felony convictions expunge or vacate criminal records to pursue citizenship, employment and education.
The program can also help people reintegrate with their communities and families, said Johanna Hernandez, who chairs the Latino Task Force’s Re-entry and Violence Committee with Arturo Carillo and is the Alameda County Director of Re-entry at Five Keys Schools and Programs.
“The direction we’re moving is about reforming and stabilizing our community,” said Hernandez.
By partnering with entities like the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, UCSF Wraparound Project, Horizons Unlimited and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, they seek to prevent and reduce incarceration, recidivism, and generational incarceration as well as facilitate parent-child visits during incarceration.
“People are coming home, and people make mistakes,” said Hernandez, who is drawing on her own incarceration and re-entry experience. “We are dedicated to making sure people have the tools necessarily so they don’t go back to jail. We can’t do it alone — it’s a community effort — that’s why we have these community partners so people can stay alive and free.”
The Clean Slate program was founded in 1999 by late Public Defender Jeff Adachi, the legacy of whom both Hernandez and Sanchez said they were proud to continue in the Mission. Current Public Defender Manojar Raju, who was recruited to the office by Adachi, continues his predecessor’s work and has already met twice with the Latino Task Force to discuss the partnership.
The partnership is also another way the Latino Task Force and community partners are working to lessen barriers to critical services like covid vaccines, food support, and legal expertise. The resource hubs already provide legal clinics for housing needs, for example.
A first-generation Latina born and raised in San Francisco, Sanchez said she “personally witnessed family and friends detained and convicted by [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement].”
Another point they emphasized was that many community members don’t realize these services exist.
“Latinos don’t really think of going back to the system and expunging their record,” said Hernandez. “When they think of criminal justice programs, it’s negative,” she added. “We can provide something positive … a light at the end of the tunnel.”