California could give more than a million people with criminal records a fresh start
Sealing felony records is integral to a bill sitting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.
Why sealing records matters
Proponents say about 8 million Californians have a criminal or arrest record, or about one of every five state residents. A criminal record can trigger nearly 5,000 legal restrictions in California, many of which can limit job opportunities as well as the ability to get housing and educational opportunities, supporters said.
They estimate that 70 million people nationwide face nearly 50,000 legal restrictions based on a criminal or arrest record.
Nationwide, 37 states and more than 150 cities have adopted laws preventing employers from asking candidates about their criminal histories prior to a job offer, according to the National Employment Law Project. This law would go further by automatically sealing convictions for people who meet certain conditions.
Jay Jordan was with some friends 20 years ago in Stockton when they tried to rob someone on the street. Jordan said no one was hurt and no items were stolen, but Jordan got an eight-year prison sentence.
Once he was released, he said his criminal record made it hard for him to rejoin society. He said he tried to become a barber, a used car salesman and an insurance broker, but was barred from each industry because of his criminal record. He could not even volunteer to help at-risk youth.
He later found work as an organizer and now is CEO of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice reform group. But he said others have not been as fortunate as him.
“They’re locked out of the economy. And they’re not committing crimes, they’re just living in poverty and they stay there because they feel like they belong there,” Jordan said. “This (bill) gives them a sense of belonging to become full American citizens again.”
What kinds of records bill would cover
While the bill would not apply to serious or violent felonies, California has a narrow legal definition of violent crimes, including about two dozen of the most serious crimes like murder, voluntary manslaughter, attempted murder, kidnapping, assaults, arson, robbery and extortion.
The bill would apply to offenses like domestic violence, said Republican Sen. Shannon Grove, who joined all Republicans in the Senate and one Democrat — Sen. Melissa Hurtado of Sanger — in voting against the bill Thursday.
“These things are very violent things even though they are not listed as serious and violent in the penal code,” Grove said.
Creating a ‘permanent underclass’
Democratic state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, the bill’s author, said in a statement that the lingering criminal records available through background checks create “a permanent underclass.” That can include, among others, “mothers that want to pursue new careers through education, fathers who want to coach, homeowners that want to join their HOA board, couples who may want to adopt, or grandchildren that want to care for their elderly grandparent.”
Seven reform organizations sponsored the bill, including Californians for Safety and Justice, which has pushed for numerous criminal justice like Proposition 47, the voter-approved ballot measure that reduced penalties for certain drug and property crimes in 2014.
Groups that opposed the bill include the 75,000-member Peace Officers Research Association of California, which argued California already offers more limited ways for lower level ex-felons to clear their records.
“By expanding the relief of penalties for all felonies, we are placing our communities at risk,” the association said. “By allowing violent criminals back on the street, with their record dismissed, they will have less deterrent to commit another crime.”
- California Senate Bill
- 2021-2022 Regular Session
Criminal records: relief.
(1) Existing law establishes the Commission on Teacher Credentialing to, among other things, issue teaching and services credentials. Existing law requires the commission to appoint a Committee of Credentials and requires allegations of acts or omissions for which adverse action may be taken against applicants or holders of teaching or services credentials to be reported to the committee, including conviction for a controlled substance offense, as defined. Existing law requires the commission to deny an application for the issuance of a credential or the renewal of a credential for a person who has been convicted of a controlled substance offense. This bill would prohibit the record of a conviction for possession of specified controlled substances that is more than 5 years old and for which relief was granted from being presented to the committee or from being used to deny a credential. (2) Existing law authorizes a defendant who was sentenced to a county jail for the commission of a felony and who has met specified criteria to petition to withdraw their plea of guilty or nolo contendere and enter a plea of not guilty after the completion of their sentence, as specified. Existing law requires the court to dismiss the accusations or information against the defendant and release them from all penalties and disabilities resulting from the offense, except as specified. This bill would make this relief available to a defendant who has been convicted of a felony, as long as that conviction does not require registration as a sex offender. Existing law requires the Department of Justice, on a monthly basis, to review the records in the statewide criminal justice databases and identify persons who are eligible for records of arrest relief without requiring the filing of a petition or motion. Under existing law, a person is eligible for arrest record relief if they were arrested on or after January 1, 1973, and the arrest was for a misdemeanor and the charge was dismissed or criminal proceedings have not been initiated within one year after the arrest, or the arrest was for a felony punishable in the county jail and criminal proceedings have not been initiated within 3 years after the date of the arrest. This bill would, commencing July 1, 2023, generally make this arrest record relief available to a person who has been arrested for a felony, including a felony punishable in the state prison, as specified. Existing law, commencing January 1, 2022, and subject to appropriation, requires the Department of Justice, on a monthly basis, to review the records in the statewide criminal justice databases and identify persons who are eligible for automatic conviction record relief. Under existing law, a person is eligible for automatic conviction record relief if, on or after January 1, 1973, they were sentenced to probation, and completed it without revocation, or if they were convicted of an infraction or a misdemeanor, and other criteria are met, as specified. The bill, commencing July 1, 2023, would additionally make this conviction record relief available for a defendant convicted, on or after January 1, 2005, of a felony for which they did not complete probation without revocation if the defendant appears to have completed all terms of incarceration, probation, mandatory supervision, postrelease community supervision, and parole, and a period of 4 years has elapsed during which the defendant was not convicted of a new felony offense, except as specified. The bill would specify that conviction record relief does not release the defendant from the terms and conditions of unexpired criminal protective orders. This bill would state that conviction record relief does not affect the authority to receive, or take adverse action based on, criminal history information for purposes of teacher credentialing or employment in public education, as specified. The bill would prohibit disclosure of information relating to a conviction for possession of specified controlled substances when the conviction is more than 5 years old and when relief has been granted under these provisions. (3) Existing law requires the Department of Justice to maintain state summary criminal history information, as defined, and to furnish this information to various state and local government officers, officials, and other prescribed entities, if needed in the course of their duties. Existing law requires the department to provide the Commission on Teacher Credentialing with every conviction rendered against an applicant, retroactive to January 1, 2020, regardless of relief granted. Existing law makes it a crime for a person authorized by law to receive state summary criminal history information to knowingly furnish that information to a person who is not authorized to receive it. This bill would require the department to also provide that information to school districts, county offices of education, charter schools, private schools, state special schools for the blind and deaf, or any other entity required to have a background check because of a contract with any of those entities. The bill would prohibit the department from disseminating information for a conviction for possession of specified controlled substances if that conviction is more than 5 years old and relief has been granted. By expanding the scope of a crime, this bill would impose a state-mandated local program. The California Constitution requires the state to reimburse local agencies and school districts for certain costs mandated by the state. Statutory provisions establish procedures for making that reimbursement. This bill would provide that no reimbursement is required by this act for a specified reason.