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Tucson felons set aside their past with rights restoration clinics

All it takes is a laptop, a form, maybe two, and someone with knowledge of the process and access to online records.

A lawyer could certainly perform the job, but it could be as much as $2,400.

Felons with multiple convictions cannot vote, run for public office, sit on a jury or possess a firearm. They must have these rights restored via what is called a judicial “set aside.” In general, the set aside is an important step for former prisoners to return to a “normal” life.

The Pima County Public Defender’s Office, in partnership with the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law, Pima County Clerk of the Superior Court and local nonprofits Primavera Foundation and Second Chance, provides four free opportunities annually for felons to apply to have their Arizona or Federal convictions set aside and their rights restored.

On one afternoon, a clinic assisted more than 80 disenfranchised felons.

“Convicts need community recognition of their [rights] restoration,” says Marla Rapaport, an attorney with the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. A self-described “lifer,” Rapaport has worked as a Pima County public defender her entire legal career and leads the clinics.

Perhaps a quarter of the clinic’s attendees are seeking restoration because they need, or have been denied, housing.

“If you can’t find housing it’s very hard to move forward with life,” Rappaport says. People who have done prison time often have trouble getting housing if the property manager or owner conducts criminal background checks.

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Last spring, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a memo indicating that disproportionate incarceration rates of blacks and Latinos often result in unequal impacts on minority home seekers. Further, criminal-history-based restrictions on housing opportunities violate the Fair Housing Act if they impact one race or national origin over another. But discrimination still happens.

Moving through the Process

The clinic scene is organized chaos. Reluctant looks on the faces of arriving participants soon turn into anticipation, and upon completion of the process, satisfaction.

Alissa Jones, 45, a single-mother of four, recently lost her home in a fire but had trouble finding another place because of her criminal convictions. Jones’ brother took her in for the time being and her goal is to secure housing by next spring.

For Jones, having her rights restored is as symbolic as it is practical. Finding housing is a challenge but she is also concerned about the dynamic within her household, especially regaining the trust of her 17-year-old son.

Waiting for her name to be called by one of the clinic’s thirteen volunteers—lawyers, law students, ex-lawyers and otherwise concerned citizens—Jones shuffles through court documents as she discusses some of her life’s decisions.

“I had a drug problem,” she says. “Been clean seven years.”

In 1999 Jones was arrested for “theft by means of control” of a vehicle and served nine months in prison. This is one of two charges she is seeking to have set aside. “I call it my other life.”

Kristine Alger, an attorney for the Pima County Legal Defender’s Office, calls Jones’ name and the two begin the process.

The first step is to search for all charges connected to Jones and, in doing so, Alger informs Jones that one of her earliest misdemeanors was dropped. This research is arguably the most technical and critical part of the process. One does not want to miss a charge and then find out at the rights restoration hearing that they must go through the whole process again.

Since Jones served time in prison she is required to attach a “certificate of absolute discharge” to prove she fully served her prison sentence. She has it in her document stack.

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Jones and Alger complete her motion form and take it to the on-site clerk who tells them that they have erringly placed two charges onto a single form. Each charge must be on its own form.

Alger and Jones make swift work of the correction and submit the finalized forms to the clerk who will officially file all the motions received from the clinic later in the evening.

The court has 45 days to respond to the motion.

Jones’ fingers are crossed.

As of 2010, there were approximately 95,893 disenfranchised felons in Arizona, according to a 2012 study. The state’s recidivism rate hovers around 50 percent, but Rapaport views rights restoration as one of the best weapons to combat high recidivism rates.

Volunteers agree. “The clinics are a great thing,” says Joseph Scott, a retired community developer and clinic volunteer. For Scott, the clinics provide the necessary service of giving access to information that the disenfranchised would otherwise not have.

Plus, law students and volunteers benefit as well.

“It’s a win-win,” Scott says.

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Angelo Lavo/Arizona Sonora news

Alissa Jones discusses the progress she has made since the rights restoration clinic in October.