After getting a felony drunken-driving conviction in the late 1990s, Pete Ketners couldn't find work in the electronics field he loved so much.
"I took a lot of survival jobs. I worked in retail, at restaurants and at a dry cleaners. I was pretty frustrated, but I had to make a living," Ketners said.
Every time he applied for a job doing technical support or quality control, the felony conviction would pop up, Ketners said.
He looked into hiring an attorney, but he couldn't swing the fees.
When Ketners, 54, landed at The Primavera Foundation's homeless shelter late last year, things started to look better.
First, he was offered a job as a shelter manager two days before his participation in a 90-day job program was to end, which would have resulted in his eviction.
Second, a Primavera staff member told him about Andy Silverman.
Silverman is a University of Arizona law school professor who has teamed up with others to help convicted felons restore their civil rights and/or have their convictions set aside - free of charge.
On April 7, Pima County Superior Court Judge Richard Nichols set aside Ketners' conviction. Although the conviction will still show up on background checks, Silverman said employers typically feel better knowing a judge believes the person is getting his life back on track.
Ketners is now updating his résumé and making long-range plans. He plans to stay at Primavera for at least a year before relaunching his job search.
The rights-restoration program began when a Pima County Superior Court clerk, a couple of lawyers and a handful of other people involved in the criminal-justice system began chatting one day about the roadblocks felons face when trying to put their lives back on track.
In Arizona, felons lose their right to vote, along with their right to seek or hold public office, the right to serve as a juror and the right to bear arms.
In addition to losing those rights, felons find that their record deters some employers from hiring them. Landlords don't always want to rent to them, and certain licenses are likewise beyond their reach.
"As an ex-offender, it's difficult to reintegrate," said Lily Shafer, criminal-unit supervisor for the Pima County Clerk's Office. "People look at you and think 'Oh, my God. You're a felon.' "
At first, Shafer and the others who sympathized simply began telling people how to have their rights restored and their convictions set aside.
Then, Shafer put together a user-friendly packet of information to be distributed at the courthouse or by attorneys.
In 2005, Silverman and Jonathan Rothschild of the law firm of Mesch, Clark & Rothschild suggested offering free clinics.
Silverman also began asking his third-year law students to tackle cases. Nowadays, clinics are held a couple of times a year, and people in need of assistance can contact Silverman year-round.
Their clients are those who were ignorant of their rights, can ill-afford an attorney or are intimidated by the court system, Shafer said.
"They were convicted of a crime and the court system is not their favorite friend. They are leery," Shafer said. "When they are done with their sentence, they want nothing to do with the courts, but then they realize there are so many roadblocks to prevent them from doing what they want to do."
Silverman said his students typically help about 70 clients a year. Some cases are straightforward, while others require research.
"We believe what we're doing is lowering the recidivism rate," Silverman said. "We want to help these people become productive people in society."
The former inmates are often in a quandary, he said. If they say "yes," they've been convicted of a crime, they often can't explain the circumstances because they often don't get called for an interview. If they say "no," they often get fired for lying when their background check comes back.
"It's really a tough life. I had one client say to me that it felt like a life sentence," Silverman said.
Ketners has a word of advice for others out there who are struggling.
"You can do it. Don't be afraid. Don't resign yourself," Ketners said. "There are people out there who can help you."
Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or firstname.lastname@example.org