Alta Adams chef Keith Corbin received his Certificate of Rehabilitation on October 17, 2023. His lifelong experience in and out of the California courts and prison system impacted his views on support and employment for the formerly incarcerated. As told to Eater LA reporter Mona Holmes.
In early October 2023, I showed up at the Superior Court of Los Angeles to deliver letters from Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, former California Assemblywoman and now Congresswoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove, and multiple city council members — all political people. These letters encouraged the courts to issue me a Certificate of Rehabilitation.
A Certificate of Rehabilitation is a Los Angeles County court order that demonstrates how someone like me — who was both convicted of felonies and served time in a state or local prison — has led an “honest and upright life” following a criminal conviction. In California, this certificate wouldn’t expunge my criminal record, but I would get back certain civil rights that most take for granted, like getting a business license or employment. A Certificate of Rehabilitation also serves as an automatic application for a pardon from the governor, which can restore even more rights and privileges.
But Judge Ricardo Ocampo reviewed the letters that day and said he needed to hear from people who really knew me. He gave me three weeks to do it.
The judge’s request didn’t feel right to me. Did he believe the people who wrote me these letters couldn’t know me personally? Was he saying that I’m unable to exist in these political circles? Can I have a friend, who happens to be a lawyer, represent and speak on my behalf? I felt depressed about the potential negative outcome, and time was running out for me to find those in my community willing to tell a judge what they thought about me now.
Despite what people say, people judge your past. As someone who had, at times, been destructive to my community, it was important for me to be recognized and accepted by my new peers, too: bankers, public figures, city council members, and journalists. But my current work is only part of the criteria, and I needed to show this new group of peers — and the courts — my transition and growth.
I was incarcerated from 2003 until 2014 in maximum security prisons for drug and gun possession, arson, and robbery. When I was released in 2014, I always talked about how I needed to change the legacy, the narrative, the conversation, and the way people saw and approached me. I wanted to leave behind a different story.
When I first came home from prison, I couldn’t rent an apartment or serve on a jury. Anyone with a criminal record finds it hard to secure a job. I initially found employment at an oil refinery. Early on, they promoted me to a position that required a background check. When they found out that I was a convicted felon, they terminated me immediately.
Like other formerly incarcerated people, I was caught in this catch-22 that can send you into a cycle of recidivism. After your release, your job is to get off parole. Parole officers are given ample leeway to parolees’ freedom. Some officers give the following condition: get a job, or get locked up again. With my background, it’s hard to do. I also didn’t have a bank account, work history, established credit, or consistent income.
When I applied for a job at Locol in 2016, chefs Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi did not require a background check. Locol was a new beginning for me. Without them creating opportunities for my community, I would be back in prison. Without the job, I wouldn’t have succeeded. The same for many of the other employees Daniel and Roy hired over the years. After working at Locol for two years, Patterson and I opened Alta Adams in 2018.
As I worked on getting my Certificate of Rehabilitation, I began to feel doubt and let time go by without completing the task of getting those letters to advocate for me. But I also kept telling myself, “The judge didn’t deny me; he just told me to get different letters.” So I reached out to coworkers, friends, and people that I grew up with.
When I started to read these letters that people wrote on my behalf, my whole perspective changed. I set out on a mission to convince the judge and courts of how I had grown, but those letters were my real confirmation. They showed how my community viewed me as a person in 2023, and that my legacy is no longer about my past. One of the letters was from my fiancé, Renee. She wrote how in the beginning she fought at my side. She was at my side over my custody battle and process to gain business ownership at Alta. When I emerged from a recovery center for cocaine addiction in April 2020, Renee witnessed all of it and shared it with Judge Ocampo.
Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson’s letter said the following: “[Keith’s] life now is an example of what happens when opportunities for change and rehabilitation are paired with natural talent and creativity.” There were similar letters from my stepdaughter and coworkers.
When Judge Ocampo called my case on October 17, 2023, he read the new batch of personal accounts. When he returned later that day, Ocampo mentioned names, pointed at Renee, and quoted from her letter.
Judge Ocampo was a former prosecutor, detective, and Compton judge for most of his career. He tried a lot of cases from my old Watts neighborhood, Grape Street. To see one of us turn it around, he said, made him feel good about granting this Certificate of Rehabilitation. When the judge changed his view of me because of my community’s voices, it felt like a tremendous weight off of my shoulders. The long journey was over.
If lawmakers and employers don’t change the hiring policies and laws around the formerly incarcerated, there’s no way to go legit. They should keep track of former criminal activities for court purposes, not for our livelihoods. People need to be forgiven when their term is up. With no stable job or home, this usually results in one option, with the formerly incarcerated falling back into the underground economy.
I was in and out of prison for most of my life but had never heard of a Certificate of Rehabilitation. Without my lawyer Eric Adams, it would have been impossible for me to navigate the five-year process. I never had a positive experience in a courtroom or before a judge and was accustomed to losing. That day, I cried with my fiancé and friends.
After court, I went right back to work. I shared about it on social media, then my general manager made a small laminated card-sized copy of the certificate for me to carry around at all times. I will not hesitate to produce it, whether with law enforcement or applying for anything when they look at my background. I’ll pull it out and slap it down like a gold American Express card and tell them to run it again. My past no longer follows me everywhere. I feel 20 times lighter.
Keith Corbin is a partner and chef at Alta Adams in West Adams. In 2023, he was nominated for a James Beard Award for his biography “California Soul: An American Epic of Cooking and Survival.”