After she was released from prison, Brandy Smith struggled to find job opportunities in Arizona due to her criminal history.
For people like Smith, who have more than one conviction, rights restoration is not automatic in Arizona. Criminal records remain in public view unless people take it upon themselves to seal them.
That process can be daunting, but a new company aims to help in the process.
On Wednesday, Dec 6, a Utah-based legal technology company known as Rasa Legal hosted a criminal record expungement clinic and free resource fair for Valley residents at the ASU downtown Phoenix campus.
From 1 to 6 p.m., attendees met with volunteer lawyers to discuss their expungement eligibility, access information to health and educational services, and participate in a fair chance hiring event with employers from all over the Valley.
While attendees were encouraged to register for the event, walk-ins were welcome to participate. According to Rasa officials, nearly 400 people had already registered for the event which was open to anybody with a criminal record.
Noella Sudbury, the CEO and founder of Rasa, coordinated the event, partnering with several different local organizations and sponsors to deliver the assistance and resources that people with criminal records might need.
"I think an event like this is just a great way to bring community together," Sudbury said. "I'm passionate about making this accessible to anyone."
Rasa, known as a public benefit corporation, aims to provide low-cost legal record clearance services to individuals impacted by the criminal justice system, according to the company's mission statement. This is done in part by partnering with other organizations that provide corporate sponsorships, as well as utilizing proprietary technology that the company has developed to streamline the legal process.
Mark Muday, Chief Technology Officer, said Rasa Legal is building a database of court records in Arizona that allows people who may have a criminal history that spans multiple jurisdictions to begin their search in one place.
"Sometimes the records can be scattered all over the place," he said.
Once a person's records have been identified, software developed by Muday checks to see if they are a candidate to have their records sealed, expunged, set aside, or if they are available for a certificate of second chance or rights restoration.
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Muday acknowledged that there are currently free services available to the public, like the Arizona Judicial Branch website, that can be used to identify case information. But he said the process can be overwhelming, and if someone does manage to locate all their records, they would then have the daunting task of comparing them with state law.
"We have found that most people who try to do it on their own fail," Muday said. "So we're trying to centralize the information, and then we use a computer code to check it against state statute."
"So some of the questions are 'Do you have any open criminal cases?' 'Are you currently on probation or parole?' 'Have you ever been convicted of a crime in another state?' Sometimes that affects eligibility.
If someone is found to qualify for one of the options, Rasa Legal offers to represent the person through the process for $250, which Muday said is less than typical attorney fees for similar legal assistance.
Lynnae Thandiwe, an attorney who works as a paralegal instructor at Pima Community College, volunteered her services to help people use the software to see if they are eligible for services.
"They want to know, so they can try and remove barriers for employment and housing," Thandiwe said.
ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Jared Keenan said Arizona only allows for automatic rights restoration after one's first felony conviction. He believes the state should expand that process to include all convictions.
"This will save Arizonans time and money while they seek to restore fundamental civil rights, including the right to vote," Keenan said. "Felony disenfranchisement prevents many Arizonans from fully participating in public life with no benefit to public safety."
According to Sudbury, several of her staff at Rasa include formerly incarcerated individuals.
"It's really important to me as the founder of the company to hire people with criminal records and show that they are just as capable of these types of jobs as people without records," Sudbury stated. "I want to be a model of fair chance employment."
Founded in September of last year, Rasa has helped more than 10,000 people across the state of Utah determine their record clearance eligibility, Sudbury stated. Now, she is eager to bring her company's services to Arizona, she said.
"There's over 2 million people in Arizona with some type of misdemeanor or felony record," Sudbury stated. She went on to add that Arizona also has the fifth largest incarceration rate in the country.
In addition to the fair, a 10:30 a.m. panel was held by Rasa to discuss the economic benefits of hiring individuals with records, Sudbury stated. Involved on the panel included Vice Chief Justice Timmer of the Arizona Supreme Court, the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections Ryan Thornell, and City Councilman Kevin Robinson.
"We're seeing so much expansion of job opportunities throughout Arizona. People need workers," Sudbury explained. "When you're an employer and you're excluding people with criminal records, you're excluding a third of the potential workforce."
For those seeking record clearance, guests were directed to Rasa's legal clinic, where a team of lawyers provided limited-scope legal advice about their record expungement eligibility under Arizona law.
She went to state that qualified individuals were also granted the option to pay over time without interest, to make the process low-cost, achievable, and accessible.
"It gives someone a pathway for hope, for opportunity, for a better life," Sudbury said.
Additionally, the American Family Insurance Institute pledged to fund the first 100 cases that Rasa represented free of charge, with attorneys assigned to oversee the entirety of the court process for eligible individuals.
According to Sudbury, a new sealing law that went into effect in January of this year helped make this event possible. Known as A.R.S. Section 13-911, this Arizona law allows certain individuals with criminal records to petition courts to have their cases sealed from public view. Sudbury went on to say that this law grants those who are eligible to do "basic things," such as renting an apartment or acquiring employment without needing to disclose their criminal history.
Even if attendees were ineligible for record expungement or rights restoration, which includes certain offenses under Arizona law such as 1st-degree felonies, Rasa was determined to make sure no one at the event left "empty-handed," according to Sudbury.
"As we've done these events, it's really important to me to partner with other service providers who can offer something to [clients]," Sudbury said. "Tons of community partners are all coming together. Even if [guests] aren't eligible to clear their record, they're still eligible to receive some great services from all of the great non-profits in the community."
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Such resources, which involved over 30 different partnering organizations, included healthcare services and screenings, educational opportunities, professional clothing providers, and a grocery vendor, which provided food to justice-impacted families.
In addition to the resource fair, employment opportunities were offered to guests, with over 15 different companies across the Valley participating in the event.
"All of the employers who've signed up know that this fair is focused on hiring people with criminal records, and they are willing and eager to do that," Sudbury said. This included looking over resumes, conducting interviews, and in some cases, offering job positions onsite.
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While not all types of records were hirable, it was important for candidates to be transparent about their background, according to Sudbury.
"It's ok to be open about your record," Sudbury said.
She went on to say that individuals who successfully have their records expunged have their wages go up by 20% within 1 year of record clearance.
"We are seeing that happen every day," she said.
However, many misconceptions continue to surround justice-impacted individuals seeking employment, according to Sudbury.
"Sometimes, people with records have years of experience. They're not a threat to public safety. They're skilled and add value to organizations," Sudbury said. "You have to take a chance on them. [Employers] need to be educated on fair chance hiring, how to do it right, and see it as an opportunity for their business."
For Arizona resident Brandy Smith, Rasa provided her an open platform to share her own story in the criminal justice system.
Originally from California, Smith moved to the Valley when she was 12, where she, "eventually fell into the wrong crowd," she said.
At age 19, she became addicted to methamphetamines.
According to Smith, she "grew deeper and deeper into her addiction," over time, despite support from her family members. At age 29, she was sent to prison for the first time for motor vehicle theft, forgery and fraud, after being in and out of county jail for years prior, she said.
"I wasn't accountable for my actions," Smith stated.
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After 2 and 1/2 years in prison, Smith said she was able to maintain stability for a year after release. However, she returned to prison a second time for similar charges, she added.
In 2011, Smith was arrested for a third time, this time with U.S. Marshals surrounding her home, Smith said. She was sentenced to prison for 7 years. Smith lost it all, including contact with her son and the death of her father, she said.
According to Smith, it was halfway through her third prison sentence when she realized she needed to change.
"I asked myself, 'What am I going to do with my life?' I didn't know the answer to that question," Smith said. "But I knew I wanted different."
It was then when Smith began taking accountability for her actions, she said.
"Every single day I would tell myself, 'I'm going to do whatever it takes to not go back to prison,'" she said. "I took a hard look in the mirror and said, 'Listen, you're the problem.'"
This led Smith to find opportunities to make money and improve herself while incarcerated, such as taking on various jobs and investing in rehabilitation programs, she said.
After she was released from prison for the third time, Smith said that, despite her focus on sobriety and newly acquired skillset, she struggled to find job opportunities due to her criminal history. While she eventually managed to land a minimum wage position, it wasn't until an opportunity from an organization known as Arouet that her life really changed, Smith said.
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While initially unqualified for the position, the CEO of Arouet, a foundation that assists previously incarcerated women with societal re-entry and opportunity, gave Smith a chance, she said.
Five years later, Smith is now the program director of Arouet.
"For my part, I stopped being a victim of my own story and I took my power back," Smith said.
"(Arouet) took a chance on me and saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. And they believed in me before I did," Smith said. "I couldn't have made it without those people."
In October of this year, Rasa reached out to the Arouet Foundation, where Smith was able to connect with Sudbury and share her story.
"These events are super critical to our community," Smith said. "Organizations like Rasa Legal bring together this type of community event and really just open doors to conversation and bridge the gap."
Smith went on to say how the social divide between those with and without criminal records has grown over the past several decades, which negatively impacts the community, she said.
"[Rasa] is helping us build trust between the general public and the previously incarcerated," Smith added. "I'm excited for this opportunity. It's been a long time coming."
While still not eligible for record sealing at this time, Smith continues to work with Rasa for legal proceedings to eventually restore her rights and remains hopeful, she said.
"The day that I hit eligibility, I'm coming for it." Smith said.
In the meantime, Smith remains eager to share her story, encouraging other previously incarcerated individuals and those with criminal backgrounds to "not give up."
"Let go of the guilt and the shame. Share your story and ask for help, because there are people out here who will help you," Smith said. "There's lots of people who want to be part of the solution."
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Rasa hosts job fair and record expungement service at ASU phoenix