Alameda County Races the Clock to Help Ex-Cons Benefit From Prop. 47

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Alameda County Public Defender's Office Intern Jill Jenkins works on finding ex-cons eligible for Prop. 47 relief.  (Sara Hossaini/KQED)

A new state law gives people with certain low-level felonies three years to reduce their convictions to misdemeanors.

More than 3,000 people behind bars were the first to benefit from Proposition 47. Now counties like Alameda are racing the clock to track down ex-offenders, in the hopes of giving them a chance to change their records.

If there's one person passionate about tracking down eligible felons, it's Jill Jenkins. She's working as an intern at the Alameda County Public Defender's Office -- something she says she never could have envisioned in her darker, drug-addicted moments.

Back then, she was a newly single young mom, who was hooked on crack.

"I didn't have any support, no therapist, no friends that I could really talk to to help me go through the fact that I was being abandoned with these children," says Jenkins. "So I resorted to what was comfortable."


As Jenkins' habit grew, so did her criminal record -- mostly with petty crimes. Her last offense was stealing a sandwich. With priors, it was considered a felony.

"When I was in my addiction, I thought I was going to die in my addiction," Jenkins says. "I really didn't even care if I lived or died."

Given the choice, she opted for a year of rehabilitation instead of jail time. Finally clean, her minister encouraged her to campaign for Prop. 47. When it passed, she was one of the first people on probation to get her conviction bumped down to a misdemeanor, and then wiped clean.

Jenkins is now a woman on a mission. From her cubicle in a mid-floor high-rise, she gets a call from the father of an ex-felon she's been trying to reach.

"It is very important," Jenkins assures him. "Your son is on active probation."

She wants to help others on probation for low-level felonies like crack possession or petty theft get to a judge before the law’s three-year window runs out.

"I've even found myself at the gas station pumps [asking], 'Do you know any felons?' " Jenkins says with a laugh.

Connecting with Alameda County's 5,000 or so Prop. 47-eligible probationers, many of whom are transient, isn’t easy. Even when she does make contact, getting them to listen can be a challenge.

Probation is typically five years of fragile freedom, where one wrong move could land you back behind bars. Jenkins says she tries to explain how getting a new sentence that reduces your felony to a misdemeanor can improve your chances of settling into your community and finding a job.

"So that's why I was trying to explain," says Jenkins. "A lot of people don’t know."

As she points to the spreadsheet on her computer, it’s clear her years in the system are a big advantage.

"Of the 5,000, I'd say I know 10 percent of the people. And I'm like, 'Hey, I know that person, I know that person,' " says Jenkins.

Senior Assistant Public Defender Jody Nunez says their effort to reach former offenders has been slow going -- only 150 people so far. But she hopes new outreach sessions at the probation office will help them reach more.

"They've got that felony conviction, and it just makes it difficult for them," says Nunez. "They also don't often have the level of education."

The pool of jobs that ex-cons are qualified for is already very limited.

"Many employers do the background checks and see the felony," says Nunez. "They’ve got other applicants, and they just won't even consider you."

Changing Times Have Made It Difficult for Ex-Cons
Does the "time for your crime" ever end in the modern era?

East Bay Community Law Center Executive Director Tirien Steinbach says the new law, which passed in November, helps bridge a disconnect between old values and modern technology.

"Laws have actually been on the books to help people move on with their lives and re-enter the community since the '30s," says Steinbach. "The idea is people got in trouble with the law and they did their time, we forgave them. That’s our culture."

But Steinbach says new technology eroded the ability to do the time for your crime and rejoin society unmarked.

"So the law said, 'We will forgive you for what you’ve done.' The new reality was that we will do commercial background checks, the government will do background checks, once a con always a con, and that’s it," Steinbach says.

She says Prop. 47 is a big deal because it not only moves the state away from hefty sentences for minor crimes, but it also offers hope that the public may be ready to revisit other barriers facing ex-cons — such as bars on professional licenses.

Jenkins says she’s just eager to see other ex-cons get a second chance, too.

"Now that my felony's been eliminated, I guess it's like having freedom papers," Jenkins says.

The public defender’s office and other Prop. 47 advocates say the next challenge will be locating people who have already completed their probation and jail time, often decades ago.