Selected Mentions of Paper Prisons in the News

Public Defenseless Podcast (Apr. 18, 2023)

On April 18, 2023, the Public Defenseless Podcast hosted Professor Colleen Chien and law student Alyssa Aguilar from Santa Clara University to discuss the Paper Prisons Initiative. The podcast starts by discussing the speakers’ motivations (5:30). Professor Chien discussed founding the Initiative after her research was validated by the experience of seeing numerous mentees and acquaintances have their lives derailed by their criminal records; in many cases, charges were dropped later or were convictions that were over a decade old.

Ms. Aguilar described wanting to join Professor Chien’s team, having grown up in a community where people, particularly minorities and including family and friends, lacking resources were often touched by the criminal justice system negatively (9:00) also (19:15).

Professor Chien then summarized her research on the “second chance gap” (11:45), highlighting that 20-30 million people are eligible to have their records partially or fully but are stuck in paper prisons (12:45) (Paper). Usually, the criminal justice system “is not about who is guilty or isn’t, but who has resources, who has money, who has [effective] representation” in determining who “ends up with a [criminal justice contact] record that will follow them”; in essence, that is the “second chance gap” (16:00). For example, one of Professor Chien’s mentees, who had limited economic resources, was accused and without having access to effective counsel was convicted of a crime (15:11).

In addition, there are, to use an economics term, high barriers to entry just to access the expungement system, but also there are low barriers to re-entry into the criminal justice system where non-disclosure or simply voting might be a felony (25:15). For example, one of Professor Chien’s students needed $5,000 just to have a lawyer look into whether he even qualified for expungement without even taking into account the filing of the paperwork if he did qualify (23:40).

Aside from accessibility issues, people, who could benefit from expungements, frequently face an “uptake gap.” As Chien has written, the uptake gap stems from a variety of internal factors, such as lack of awareness, the cost of navigating bureaucratic state mechanisms, cautiousness about disclosure, and even just reopening a traumatic experience (25:15). For example, Professor Chien describes the reluctance of some people in the second chance gap to reopen the wounds of dealing with the justice system despite qualifying for an expungement (26:35)

At the end of the podcast, Chien discussed the  Racial Justice Act, her testimony, and the planned release of a tool by the Paper Prisons team. Check out the full blog post about it here (Paper Draft).

Listen to the Public Defenseless podcast or visit their website.


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