Natashia Deón, the Lawyer-Novelist Giving Past Offenders a Future

Deón’s restorative justice charity REDEEMED links past offenders with creative writers to write strong personal statements and encourage courts to expunge criminal records.

17.07.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by KQED
Photo by KQED

We’re nothing without our mistakes. Every inch of our lives is littered with things we’ve done wrong, from failed relationships to decisions taken at work and while travelling. Good mental health practice tells us to let these moments go — to heal, learn from them, then grasp a deserved second chance once it’s offered to us.

Unfortunately, in many countries, the justice system does not operate according to the same principles. In the US, being arrested or sentenced for a crime—even if the punishment is ultimately just a fine—stays on a person’s searchable criminal record for life. This gives employers and other institutions an opportunity—or in some cases, an obligation—to reject their applications for jobs, mortgages, travel or even voting.

The obvious result is a continued marginalisation of former convicts and an increase in re-offending rates. How are you supposed to feel motivated to improve when it feels as if society is rigged and your future is already determined by a set of mistakes in the past?

Criminal lawyer Natashia Deón has spent a decade helping people to break free from the shame and stigma of their past. She supports past offenders that have completed their court sentence, finished probation and paid all relevant fees to clean their criminal records. Many small infractions, such as marijuana possession charges, can be written off the record entirely, and many felonies can be downgraded to a misdemeanour.

Deón told Voyagela that her drive was a reaction to the emptiness that she felt working in corporate law, when she decided that she wanted to “really help [people] in ways that were meaningful in their everyday lives.”

“I sincerely believe that if a person wants to do better and be better than their pasts suggest, there should be a path for them in society to do that,” she added.

So, she set up Redeemed, a charity to make this process of record cleaning and ‘arrest sealing’—making sure arrests do not appear on searchable criminal records—as simple as possible.

It works by pairing lawyers and professional writers who help people set out their story in a compelling and logical manner, allowing them to easily apply for a record-clearing process. Once created, the professionally-written affidavits and rap sheet are sent to a law firm to complete and file the petitions.

This draws on creative writing, Deón’s other great passion in life: She’s a creative writing professor at UCLA and Antioch University, and her historical fiction novel ‘Grace’ was selected as a New York Times Top Book in 2016.

Deón told that individuals who have served jail time often don’t take advantage of right to clean their records, because they’re usually traumatised from the experience and want to avoid courtrooms to avoid dredging up the issue.

To tackle this, Redeemed works in non-confrontational and non-traditional spaces such as art spaces such as museums and galleries—spaces that Deón says do not “strip away aspects of humanity”—and offers self-help support.

“We are all connected and owe it to each other to build a better understanding, earn a right to another chance and learn empathy. We can all be better and do better. Even in court,” the organisation writes.

In a video on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, Charles W Hamilton, former senior vice president of legal and business affairs at Warner Bros Records and now vice president of Redeemed, said that “throwing people away”—his term for leaving people unable to reintegrate into society—“is as extraordinary a crime as injuring people in the first place.”

He continued: “We have to make a decision: we either lock [people] up for ever and live with the consequences of that terrible and unacceptable choice. Or we have to find a path for people to come back who choose to do so.”

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