by Zaire Saunders
San Francisco is no stranger to crime, if you look at all the stories our major news outlet disseminates you’ll find tales of misery plaguing our schools, stores and community spaces.
It’s all the perfect storm to scare the citizens of the City and turn them against whoever ranks lower on the pyramid. Keep the people fighting an enemy who is just waiting to squander the great progressive paradise San Francisco prides itself on being. In a word: Fascism.
So to combat the narrative that we are in a crime filled cesspool in dire need of fatal force to keep us in line, I reached out to Kelly Pretzer Deputy Public Defender of the Clean Slate Unit to hear about people taking life into their hands and being free of the burden a society, no less criminal itself, has placed on them.
Zaire Saunders: Can you begin by telling me more about yourself and how you found yourself in this role?
Kelly Pretzer: I started my career as a Public Defender in Memphis, Tennessee, but I am from Santa Cruz. In some ways, Memphis felt like a different world from California, but actually many of the issues are the same there as they are here, including a high percentage of people of color being involved in the system compared to the population as a whole.
We did not have the resources to have a Clean Slate program, so we had to try to fit expungements in when we could. I loved helping people get to a place where they were no longer limited by their criminal records, which is what drew me to this job.
Zaire Saunders: Why is the clean slate program important?
Kelly Pretzer: Expunging your record can change your life. Expungement is meant to relieve you from the burden of having a criminal record when you have a background check for employment, housing, licensing, or other reasons. Expungement in California means your criminal arrest or conviction can be reduced, dismissed, sealed, vacated, or destroyed, depending on the case.
Expungement can make you eligible for jobs, professional licenses, and housing that you otherwise would not be eligible for. When you expunge a conviction, that means that most private employers cannot use your conviction against you when making hiring decisions.
Even if you are applying for a job or a professional license that requires a more intense background check, it is better to be able to say that you have been to court and the judge expunged the case, rather than just having the conviction hanging out there and trying to explain it on your own. Even if you were only arrested but never convicted, some jobs may be able to see your arrest record. We can help you seal those arrests. Our goal is to make you feel confident about the job application process.
It is important to apply to Clean Slate, even if you think your cases are eligible for automatic expungement under the new law. You cannot trust that all of your arrests and convictions have been automatically expunged. Some of your cases may not be eligible or there may have been an error in the automatic expungement process.
The only way you can know for sure is to apply to Clean Slate and have an attorney review your record. Right now, the automatic expungement process does not update the local San Francisco rap sheet and some employers only look at local information when making hiring decisions. We can help to make sure that all of your cases are expunged at the local level.
I also want everyone to know that your arrests and convictions are likely still on your record no matter how old they are. I had a client recently who was denied a job working with at-risk youth because of a misdemeanor conviction from 1971! This person had a long career in the healthcare field and wanted to give back to the community during retirement. It is ridiculous to think that a conviction that is over 50 years old could cause these kinds of issues, but it happens all the time. We were able to get this conviction removed from the person’s record.
For these reasons, it is my mission in life to have everyone with an arrest or conviction in San Francisco apply to our program!
Zaire Saunders: How can people get involved to help expunge their record?
Kelly Pretzer: You can apply online (https://sfpublicdefender.org/services/clean-slate/clean-slate-application/), or email PUBDEF-CleanSlate@sfgov.org and request an application, or fill out an application at the front desk of the Public Defender’s Office at 555 7th Street during business hours, or call 415-553-9337 and give us your address so we can mail you an application.
We have applications in English and Spanish and we have Spanish and Cantonese-speaking staff who can assist you. We can also assist you over the phone using an interpreter for other languages.
You do not need to live in San Francisco, but you do need to have an arrest or conviction in San Francisco. If you only have arrests or convictions in other counties, you can contact our office and we will try to put you in touch with the offices doing Clean Slate work in those counties.
We also have a clinic at our office on Tuesdays from 9-11a.m. You have to sign up for an appointment ahead of time. You can sign up here Calendly or call the number above and we can schedule an appointment for you. It is best if you first apply and wait two weeks before you have a clinic appointment. That way, we will have your rap sheets back already and can explain everything you are eligible for.
We are also at four monthly clinics in the community: (1) Mission Food Hub at 701 Alabama St. on the first Thursday of the month from 10-12:00p.m. (Spanish-speaking staff will be there), (2) Arriba Juntos at 1850 Mission St. on the first two weekdays of the month from 10-11:00a.m., (3) Young Community Developers at 96 Broad Street on the third Wednesday of the month from 10-1p.m., and (4) SFPD Cares, usually on the second Saturday of the month from 10-1:00p.m. The location of the SFPD Cares event changes monthly but is often in the Bayview at Alice Griffith at 2600 Arelious Walker Dr. or in Visitacion Valley near the 1400 block of Sunnydale Ave. You can call our office and we will let you know where the next SFPD Cares clinic will be and send you a flier.
Zaire Saunders: Have you seen any discrepancies between races when it comes to who often has records?
Kelly Pretzer: Around 70% of our clients are people of color. That tells me that the consequences of having contact with the criminal justice system in the past are felt much more intensely for people of color. Around 60% of our clients apply to Clean Slate because of employment issues. We are here to try to level the playing field and push back on the undeniable history of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.
Zaire Saunders: How does the clean slate program work?
Kelly Pretzer: Once you submit your application, we will request your rap sheets, and an attorney will review. We will contact you and let you know what types of expungements you are eligible for and whether we need anything else from you. Some expungements require that you submit a statement to the court. We can help you write the statement. You will probably not need to come to court at all and we will mail you all the documentation showing that your cases were expunged. We are always available to answer questions before, during and after the process.
Zaire Saunders is the copy editor and reporter for the SF Bay View Community Journalism Program, which is funded by the California State Library.