Incredible Story of a Bank Robber Turned Law Professor and California’s Tools for Rehabilitation

The public tends to cast a negative light on those who have been convicted of a crime. Sometimes, such perception is warranted. Other times, however, such view ignores a vital part of our criminal justice system: rehabilitation.

Meet Georgetown Law Professor, Shon Hopwood. After being sentenced to 13 years in Federal prison for a string of bank robberies, Shon gained national attention when he authored a petition while in prison that was accepted by the Supreme Court. Not to mention, that while in prison, he authored briefs that helped correct a sentencing error which led to a 10 year reduction in a fellow inmate’s sentence. Following his release from prison, he went to college, and then law school. Read the full incredible story in this great article from the Washington Post.

Fortunately, California has recognized the need for additional emphasis on rehabilitation and has taken the right steps towards fixing problems that lead to criminal behavior rather than just focusing on punishment. For instance, in-patient rehabilitation can constitute custody so that a sentence is served while getting help for substance abuse issues. 

There are other laws that have also recognized that some defendants deserve a clean start, such as California’s “expungement” statute, Penal Code 1203.4. The term expungement is actually a misnomer because the record is not truly wiped clean. The technical outcome of a granted PC 1203.4 petition is that the defendant withdraws his guilty plea and the complaint is dismissed (or a guilty verdict is set aside). A few things to note that are not evident when reading the statute: the court file itself is not destroyed, so unless the court moves or destroys the file according to its internal policies, any member of the public can track down the file if they know where to look. Also, when a criminal history report is run, one’s record will state that a case has been dismissed pursuant to Penal Code 1203.4. That means that while the original conviction no longer shows up, an educated eye will know that there was some kind of conviction at some point. There are numerous laws that protect a once-defendant from misuse of this information, including labor laws that discuss a potential employer’s consideration of this information. Another limitation of a granted PC 1203.4 petition is that it does not restore any lost rights (such as being able to own or possess firearms after a domestic violence conviction). Moreover, an “expunged” case is still priorable. For example, if a DUI is expunged and another conviction occurs within ten years of the expunged DUI’s date of violation, it will still count as DUI number 2, even though the first was was “expunged.” 
But, there is one main tremendous benefit to obtaining an “expungement.” After a petition is granted, if one is asked whether he or she has ever been convicted of a crime, he or she can answer “no.” There are a few exceptions, including if that person is applying to be a peace officer or to work in the California State Lottery Commission. Or, if running for public office or applying for certain state licenses. 
There are also great programs in San Diego that focus on rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. For example, the SMART program discussed in a previous post (December 12, 2016). There is also the Community Justice Initiative started by the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, that gives low level offenders a chance to avoid a conviction altogether

Let’s remember that a criminal history does not always define an individual. In fact, some people with convictions have overcome incredible obstacles despite being dealt a bad hand. As with anything in life, all you can do is learn from your mistakes and work towards being better. 

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