The California State University (CSU) awarded 26 CSU faculty members with a Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award. 

Among the recipients is San Jose State University justice studies lecturer

Margaret Stevenson. 

Stevenson was granted the award for her work in establishing the Record Clearance Project, a unique program for undergraduate students to learn criminal laws and provide legal services to clients from low-income backgrounds.

“It’s liberating for people,” Stevenson said. “We as a society need to have the talent, energy and ideas that let people reach their full potential instead of holding them back for arbitrary reasons, mistakes they made in the past or just things that happened.”   

Stevenson began working on the project in 2005 at Stanford Community Law Center.

After she arrived at SJSU in Fall 2007, she realized “the students here have a lot of energy, compassion and desire to help out. It’s fabulous for the teacher to set up these situations with trainings and necessary supervisions.” 

Stevenson then founded SJSU’s Record Clearance Project and trained students who had no law school background. 

In 2011, the program was formalized into three classes as 

an entire course sequence under the justice studies department. 

Students learn a range of legal skills through the courses, including legal analysis and reading a rap sheet, as well as representing clients in court to get their records cleared. 

SJSU is the only institution that provides this opportunity for undergraduate students. 

Justice studies senior Jai Mica Vaca said, “Not every law school has this particular program. We are very fortunate to have it.”

Stevenson said the students in this program were able to give people a new opportunity in life.

For seven years, hundreds of students have been involved in this program and have helped people clear their criminal records and change their lives.

Justice studies senior, Jesse Mejia, said he had family members who went to jail. “I have seen first hand people who lost hope. They might think that once they are out from jail they will only roll back to get into jail.”

By taking these courses, Mejia has obtained skills that have allowed him to bring support to many people who have lost hope.

“Because of their conviction history, they are not going to find job opportunities. . . But being able to help really shows them that there is always hope in moving forward,” Mejia said.

When he took the first class in the series, he was not able to work with clients one-on-one. He said, “Even if we just give them advice that we are not able to help them at that moment, they still leave us a smile on their faces.”

Now that Mejia has worked with clients and has been able to represent them in court, he said, “It’s just a great thing to see. After all this time, they are able to move on and have that shadow dismissed.”

Stevenson is proud of her students. “People come to have conversations because students have a gift that they skilled through their education . . . Students come to understand what another person’s life has been like and they have the power to get better.”

Stevenson said there was a man in the jail who said the community education presentation changed his life. 

The man told Stevenson the most precious moment in his life was being there and listening to the information students were providing. 

“It just blew me away,” Stevenson said. “Looking at the group of these men and these lives, in this place . . . what a waste of potential, what a waste of energy, I just think that ‘you don’t have to be here!’ But people think that once they are in the system, there is no way of getting out,” Stevenson added.

In addition to honoring faculty members with the award, the CSU will also grant $5,000 to the awardees. 

Their academic department will receive $10,000 to support the ongoing innovation and leadership program.

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