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Imprisoned, Rehabilitated, Unemployed

Oakland's large population of ex-felons struggle to get jobs. And their only glimmer of hope — a certificate of rehabilitation — isn't easy to get. Just ask Hawk Aavan Jonsson.



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Burton worked with a public defender and spent about four months preparing her case in 2004. She went through five courts to file papers having to do with multiple drug-related convictions she got while deeply depressed about the untimely death of her son.

Yet since receiving the certificate of rehabilitation, Burton said she hasn't used it once. The piece of paper sits in a file cabinet in her office. She's also received official notice that her pardon was rejected by the governor.

Meanwhile, she continues to get national attention for the rehabilitation services she offers in South Los Angeles. This year she was named one of CNN's top ten heroes in the nation.

"I had to create something that did not question who I am today, and develop a niche and work towards that," said Burton. "It's not because anyone gave me a grand opportunity to redeem myself."

On a cold July morning, the room overlooking Lake Merritt at the René C. Davidson Alameda County Courthouse overflowed with defendants and their supporters. Jonsson, his mother, girlfriend, and other close friends waited among them.

It wasn't a place for much discussion. Simple words and phrases — yes, no, guilty, not guilty, denied, waived, granted — and hearing dates quickly bounced from lawyer to Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson as he scheduled hearings and sentenced one defendant after another.

But Jonsson's case halted the pace. He and his lawyer, John McCurley, had spent weeks gathering positive testimonials for their side, even postponing the hearing date to better prepare a rebuttal to the DA's negative recommendation and five-page chronology of his rehabilitation.

Jonsson's heart sank when the first thing Jacobson said to him and his lawyer was, "I have not had a chance to read any of your papers, only the DA's report."

Jacobson said the most he could offer was a five-minute break to take a closer look at the defense's documents. After two and a half hours of watching a stream of defendants come and go from the room, only those involved in Jonsson's case remained. Jonsson anxiously waited with his supporters. Five minutes passed. Then ten. Then fifteen. Finally the judge returned, case files in hand.

Even after Jacobson returned to the courtroom and summoned prosecutor Dolge, McCurley, and Jonsson back, the judge took an extra minute to read over the papers spread in front of him, further dragging out the suspense for Jonsson's side. Jacobson then requested the DA's reason for denying a positive recommendation.

After Dolge reiterated that Jonsson had lied about a previous termination on the application for the certificate, McCurley attempted to elaborate on Jonsson's confusion over the termination of his employment at the time. But before the defense had a half-minute to plead its case, Jacobson cut in and asked if Jonsson was, in fact, fired and incorrectly reported his termination to DA investigators.

"Yes," McCurley conceded.

Jacobson then concluded what Jonsson feared all along.

"I'm going to be looking for a longer period of a spotless record," the judge said. "I'm uncomfortable granting the certificate at this point."

Jonsson could barely open his eyes as he held the door open for the last people filing out of the courtroom. Then, for a moment, Jonsson's usual optimism gave way to skepticism over what society expects of him.

"The fact that he focused solely on the unemployment issue, it just shows he wasn't being fair," said Jonsson. "I see people in the White House get pardoned all the time and they ruin people's lives. And here I am. For fourteen years I've been a firefighting volunteer. ... I don't really know what else they can ask for.

"It's hard to have faith in the justice system when I try to do right ... and I continue to pay," Jonsson said, with a quiver in his lips. "To be forgiven, that's all I wanted."

To his family, friends, and former colleagues, it's unfathomable that all their positive testimonies of his kindness, work ethic, and thorough rehabilitation could be outweighed in the hearing by Jonsson's dispute with a previous employer. "I live with him every day and he's a danger to no one," said Dori Maynard, who asked Jonsson to live with her after he served as caretaker for her dying husband, Charles Grant Lewis. "I cannot put into words how unfair it is to keep him from getting this.

"He did six years in prison, and that's no joke — he did his time," continued Maynard, who's president of the Maynard Institute, a journalism think tank. "It's very difficult to watch him now because he wants so badly to work. I wonder how many Hawks there are out there going through the same thing no matter what they do."

Weeks after his court date, Jonsson was moving on as best he could with another plan for becoming a self-sufficient part of society. Applying for another certificate in three years is still part of his plan, as is reporting he was fired from the medic job, even if he thinks it's false and unfair.

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