Emily Jo Cureton, The Triplicate

'Clean Slate' is for some offenders who stay clean for 7 years

By Emily Jo Cureton

Triplicate staff writer

When a drunk driver hit him, Willard Carlson, Jr. changed.

A career in fisheries was suddenly behind the Yurok Tribal Member; a long recovery from brain and neck injuries ahead.

Eight years later, Carlson's own drinking was out of control, wrecking his relationships and endangering anyone he passed on the roads of Del Norte and Humboldt.

"Things were terrible ... I felt so ashamed I couldn't even come to Klamath and visit my children," the 59-year-old recounted this week.

In the early 2000s Carlson would become estranged from his closest relatives, and be arrested for drinking and driving, four times in a row.

"That was my very rock bottom," he said.

Then came a decision to change - putting a destructive past behind him, another long recovery ahead.

"It's about moving forward and letting the past be just that; about serenity and a clean lifestyle. You can choose a lot of things ... The thing is, a felony is a felony, even though mine is a non-violent one," said Carlson.

Carlson has now been clean and sober for going on nine years. He served nine months in county jail, went to rehab, completed probation and is still paying off thousands of dollars in fines and fees.

Meanwhile a label like felon can be fixed for a lifetime - on official applications for employment, housing, social assistance and financial aid for education. State law allows for non-violent crimes to be expunged or sealed on a case-by-case basis, but those who've changed their lives must pay for this process, usually hundreds of dollars to even initiate proceedings.

Now the Yurok Tribe is offering a cost-free option for tribal members and their families, who like Carlson, have not committed a crime in seven years or more.

"This is the first time this type of program has ever been offered in Indian Country for tribal members," said Danielle Vigil-Masten, part of the Yurok Tribal Court's team administering the Clean Slate Kee cha-e-nar program, meaning "it will be new."

Vigil-Masten was part of a group recently trained in San Francisco, where the first Clean Slate program started in 1999.

Besides expunging records, the program's team is trained in how to seal juvenile offenses, obtain a Certificate of Rehabilitation, request early release from probation, reduce criminal records and in certain circumstances get previous convictions overturned. Typically, those eligible to have a record completely expunged have committed misdemeanors or felonies, but served time in county jail rather than state or federal prison, according to a press release from the Yurok Tribe.

Those qualified must have finished probation, paid restitution or court-ordered reimbursements and not be currently serving another sentence or charged with an additional offense.

A state Certificate of Rehabilitation doesn't remove anything from a person's record, but it does reinstate the right to vote and enable the legal purchase and possession of a gun outside of federally-entrusted reservation lands. The Tribe's press release points to the necessity of firearms for subsistence hunting. To qualify for the certificate, a person must be a resident of California for five years and have been out of prison for seven.

"As a policy of good practice, we are not going to be doing sexual assault cases. They will have to get their own resources," said Vigil-Masten.

On Tuesday the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors honored the new program with a resolution of commendation. Program staff is collaborating with the Probation and District Attorney's Offices in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, as well as with liaisons from the Governor's Office and the Department of Justice,Vigil-Masten said.

Carlson's is one among 30 applications received thus far.

"The main principle the Clean Slate Kee cha-e-nar is based on is consistent with traditional Yurok values," wrote Yurok Chief Judge Abby Abinanti in the Tribe's press release. "Customarily and today, if a Yurok person commits an offense he or she made a payment to the victim. Both the victim and perpetrator worked to repair the relationship by negotiating a payment in order to restore balance for both sides. Here with this program we are extending the principle to allow for the offender to regain their place in community as a contributing community member, who having erred, has acted in such a fashion that they get a fresh start."

In Carlson's case, restoring balance has in part meant restoring a close relationship with his family in Klamath and building a place for tradition and healing to thrive.

"We started with chain saws," he remembered.

That was 2007, four years into his recovery from alcoholism.

Today a nearly complete traditional Yurok Village stands on his family's property, the first built in more than a century.

The altered scene along Blue Creek is the ongoing work of many hands, which Carlson said he hopes will be a place for traditional dances and togetherness.

"Us Native American people, we have to live in both worlds, traditional and high-tech, but there is a balance that can be achieved. It's too easy to escape life's challenges going into a bottle or a drug. They don't discriminate against any race."

Yurok tribal staff present a detailed description of how the Clean Slate program works at an open house meeting Friday at the Tribe's headquarters in Klamath. A second open house will take place Friday, Nov. 9, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Weitchpec Tribal Office.

Reach Emily Jo Cureton at ecureton@triplicate.com.