Thanks to the efforts of Santa Clara University School of Law student Antonio Reza and others like him, a growing number of people leaving prison may be headed to law school.
Many people study law while incarcerated. They may want to learn how to challenge wrongful convictions. Or attempt to correct errors in their sentencing. Or pick up knowledge that will help them gain employment upon release. Up to this point, however, not so many have gone on to practice law. But that is changing.
Take Antonio Reza for example. He grew up in what he calls a “rough neighborhood” and lost his first friend to gang violence at the age of 12. When he graduated from high school he knew seven people who had died within a year. And none were older than 21.
His mother kicked him out of the house the day after he finished high school, and he was incarcerated at the age of 19, convicted of the felony one count of second degree armed robbery and received a strike.
“When I got out there were a lot of barriers, and a lot of doors were closed to me. Everybody counted me out. ‘You’re just a felon. You’ll go back,’ they said,” Reza says. “I just wanted to prove everybody wrong.”
Substituted success for re-incarceration
“In doing so, I did the exact opposite of going back to prison.’
And what was the exact opposite? He enrolled in Ohlone College, a community college in Fremont, Calif., played basketball, was a part of student government, got inducted into the honor society and graduated with a 4.0 grade average.
But when he attempted to transfer to a four-year college, he faced the kind of challenges that are only encountered by those with a criminal record.
“When I was applying to transfer, that little box was everywhere. For job applications, for housing, for FAFSA,” Reza says. “All I was trying to do was to get an education, and I had this barrier trying to exclude me again.
“I was so mad all this time. Literally everywhere I turned, that box was there, and every time another door was closed on another opportunity that was not for me.”
But Reza persisted, was accepted to the University of San Francisco with a full scholarship and graduated as valedictorian. “I did everything I could, because I knew I had a second opportunity and didn’t want to waste any chances,” he says.
During his years at USF, he volunteered at a halfway house and started to be an advocate for formerly incarcerated people.
Standing up for the formerly incarcerated
“I knew I had to take a stand. There’s a negative stigma around people with a record, so I wanted to break that,” he says. “I wanted to do that by showing that, ‘yeah, just because I was a felon, don’t keep me out.’ I started becoming an advocate because people would say, I never knew you were a felon. But what’s a felon?
“I knew that by standing up, I would be making it easier for the next felon. There are phenomenal people who came before me who were formerly incarcerated. These people were trailblazing. They allowed me to get opportunities that I wouldn’t have had. They pushed the envelope, and I’m pushing the envelope just a bit further.”
Through his work at the halfway house and his studies at USF, he became determined to be an agent of change.
“I noticed a lot of changes I felt needed to be made in the legal system, and I couldn’t do them standing on the outside. I had to be on the inside. I believe that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”
So, he applied to 21 law schools. And even then, he noticed the discrimination. He was accepted by quite a few but waitlisted by others that he said, based on his grades and scores, he would have been accepted to and heavily recruited – if it weren’t for his record.
Of the law schools he was accepted to, Santa Clara stood out.
“It is truly a special environment. I can bring who I really am to campus. Just to be normal,” Reza says. “The environment really made a difference. The admission staff really made an effort to recruit me. And they gave me a full ride,” he says.
Creating bar associations for previously incarcerated attorneys
Now in his first year of law school, he is planning to specialize in criminal justice reform. And in the meantime, along with his studies, he’s busy developing two organizations dedicated to giving a voice to formerly incarcerated people who are now lawyers and law students.
Reza is an executive board member and the first student president of the National Justice Impact Bar Association, a new bar association for formerly incarcerated lawyers. As a member, he participated in the Rebellious Lawyering Conference 2020, which is the largest student-run public interest law conference in the U.S. and took place in mid-February at Yale Law School.
He’s also one of the founding members of the California System Involved Bar Association, which attracted 100 attendees to its first annual conference March 7 at UCLA.
“Most attendees (at the California event) were undergraduate students who are thinking about attending law school. A lot of them were justice involved, or their family members were or their kids,” Reza said. There were three panels. One was law school admissions staff explaining how they handle formerly incarcerated applicants. The panel that Reza was on consisted of formerly incarcerated law students and practicing attorneys. The third panel was people in charge of moral character for the State Bar of California.
Advice for those who want to become a lawyer
“It’s possible. It’s going to be hard, but it’s possible. I was told that due to my record I was never going to be able to practice law, but that’s a lie. As soon as you pass the bar, you can practice any kind of law you want. You can even be a tax lawyer, public defender, district attorney or any other type or lawyer you want. You are not limited because you are formerly incarcerated. That doesn’t mean you won’t be discriminated against. You’re going to have to bring your A game, if you’re going to be able to make it,” Reza says.
“The formerly incarcerated community is a really strong and close community. I’d like to encourage whoever is reading this to feel free to contact me. Everyone is willing to help each other out. We’ve all been through it, and we understand what it’s like, so we really try to help each other.