Thu. Apr 18th, 2024

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.

Rachel M. Cohen has been covering social policy and politics for over a decade in Washington D.C. She is a senior domestic policy reporter at Vox.   Encounters with the criminal justice system, no matter how long ago or for what reason, can ruin a person’s life. California is on the verge of an ambitious attempt to change that.  An estimated 70 million to 100 million Americans have a criminal record, a history with law enforcement that turns up on background checks and sometimes Google searches. Applicants with criminal records can be half as likely as those without them to get a callback or job offer. Nearly 9 in 10 employers use criminal background checks; so do 4 in 5 landlords, and 3 in 5 colleges and universities. These practical realities make it harder to successfully reintegrate into society, in what researchers call “collateral consequences” of mass incarceration.  Most states have laws allowing for some form of criminal record clearing.
Eligible individuals — generally those with no convictions, or who were convicted of a low-level offense — are typically required to petition a judge or state agency for clearance. Most don’t, whether because ofthe cost, complexity, or simply from lack of information. One University of Michigan study published in 2019 found over 90 percent of those eligible didn’t apply. As a result, the “Clean Slate” movement was born — a recentpush by criminal justice reformers to automatically clear,orseal from public view, records for eligible offenses.
Pennsylvania was the first state to enact automatic record clearing in 2018, followed by Utah, California, Michigan, Virginia, Delaware, and Colorado. Michigan’s law — passed in 2020 — was the first state to automatically clear some prior felony offenses.  A new bill, SB 731, recently passed by the California legislature and now sitting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, would go further. If signed, SB 731 would significantly expand automatic sealing eligibility for people who served time in prison. And while people with violent, serious felony records would not be offered the automatic “clean slate,” they could, for the first time, petition to have their records sealed. Virtually all ex-offenders, except registered sex offenders, would now be eligible for relief.

“Clean slate automates the current process, but what we said is, the current process sucks,” said Jay Jordan, CEO at Alliance for Safety and Justice, the criminal justice group that has led the charge for SB 731. Jordan said they’ve been focused on making the petition process easier for individuals with records, so that everyone could have their fair day in court.

Two decades ago Jordan was sentenced to prison for a gun robbery charge. “I did eight years in prison and when I got out at 26 and tried to navigate the world, I realized I couldn’t,” he told Vox. He was rejected from various jobs and he and his wife are still facing barriers to adopting a child. “I’ve dedicated my life to trying to change this,” he said. “If I can get free, then everyone else can get free.”

How SB 731 would work

The bill’s author, state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, wanted to help ex-offenders have an easier time transitioning out of prison. “About 75 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are still unemployed after a year of their release,” Durazo told the Los Angeles Times. “So something’s wrong there. We expect them to get back on their feet, but we’re not allowing them the resources to get jobs and [have] careers.”

Under SB 731, while landlords and most employers would not be able to view expunged records, public and private schools would still be able to review them during job background checks. Law enforcement, courts, and the state justice department would also still have access to the sealed records, and individuals would be required to disclose their criminal history if asked about it when applying to serve in a public office, among other exceptions. And the law would not apply to sex offenders.

“This is not an über-progressive bill,” acknowledged Jordan. “We worked heavily with folks who don’t necessarily share our vision, the licensing agencies, the DOJ, it went through the rings of fire. But because of that, we’ve got the ‘mod squad’ on board,” he said, referring to the more centrist lawmakers in the state legislature.

If signed into law, record relief would become available for most defendants convicted of a felony on or after January 1, 2005, if they had completed their sentence and any remaining parole and probation, and had not been convicted of a new felony offense for four years. Advocates originally wanted records sealed after two years, but that version failed to clear the state assembly a year ago.

Californians for Safety and Justice estimates at least 250,000 people would be eligible for automatic record sealing under SB 731, and possibly as many as 400,000. Will Matthews, a spokesperson for the group, told Vox they believe at least 1 million more individuals would gain the right to petition courts for record clearance.

What we know — and don’t know — about record clearing’s effects

Criminal justice researchers caution that even if automated record clearing expands to millions more people nationwide, it might not inevitably make it easier for people with criminal records to find jobs or places to live. While some research is in the works, not much is yet known about how these record-clearing policies work in practice.

Beginning in 2004, some criminal justice reformers pushed to pass“ban the box” policies, a bipartisan reform that effectively barred employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history until at least after an interview. The majority of states ultimately did it for public-sector employment and at least 12 did so for private employers as well.

But the success came with some unintended consequences. Research published in 2016 found employers were actually more likely to discriminate based on race following the passage of “ban the box” policies, thus increasing racial disparities in job interviews. More recent research suggests the reforms have done little to increase employment for ex-offenders in the private sector.

Last month, three California academics published a new analysis showing that the eligibility criteria for automatic record clearing can also exacerbate racial disparities. California’s record clearing laws — passed in 201620182019, and 2021 — have disproportionately benefited white Californians over Black Californians, the scholars found. “It is easy to see how racial disparities in criminal record relief might emerge, as a range of discretionary decisions by criminal justice actors from the time of arrest through to sentence completion can affect subsequent eligibility,” they wrote.

“Policies don’t start from nowhere,” Amy Lerman,one of the study’s co-authors, told Vox. “We know that Black Americans have historically been much more likely to live in heavily policed neighborhoods, to be stopped and questioned by police, and to be sentenced to prison or jail. That means when you pass a law that limits criminal record clearance to only people who have committed some types of crimes, or who have some types of criminal records, it is going to have a different impact across racial groups.”

SB 731 would be an improvement over the status quo, the California scholars told Vox, but racial disparities would likely persist until offenses classified as serious or violent, such as robbery, are included for automaticeligibility. They pointed to empirical research published in 2009 that found among people arrested at age 18, the risk that they would be arrested again eventually declined to match people of the same age who had not been arrested. It took7.7 years after a robbery arrest, 3.8 years after a burglary arrest, and 4.3 years after an aggravated assault arrest.

The impact of SB 731 would also likely come down to implementation. New notification systems may be needed so that eligible candidates become aware of their new rights; also needed are clear agency guidelines regarding missing data and timely communication between state agencies and commercial background companies.

Data collection and quality have been an issue for criminal justice reformers in the past, and the challenges are exacerbated by the rise of digitized records online. Every year, digital records of over 10 million arrests, 4.5 million mug shots, and 14.7 million court proceedings are digitally released nationwide. Often, outdated or false paper trails create additional barriers for those looking to seal their records.

Tiffany Lewis, a San Francisco-based consultant who advises tech employees on their job applications, predicted that SB 731 would do little to remove the kind of criminal information an employer routinely finds online. Private companies also aggregate, scrape, and share criminal record data. To prevent this, Sarah Esther Lageson, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University-Newark, said states need to issue stronger regulatory standards and limit employer and landlord uses of unregulated background checks.

Lageson told Vox that the best thing states could do is centralize their criminal record disclosure policies. “For instance,” she said, “police departments might disclose pre-conviction mug shots, while courts release a different set of criminal case information online, while the office in charge of releasing rap sheets might only disclose convictions from seven years ago.”

Such disclosure patchworks can cause harm and undermine automatic record-sealing efforts. “States might also consider ending the bulk release of pre-conviction records altogether, reserving the release of some mug shots and arrest or charging information on a case-by-case basis or through more traditional transparency law requests,” she said.

There’s new federal momentum for record relief

While there’s always a risk with criminal justice reform that advocates will pass incremental measures that leave too many behind, early experience with clean slate policies suggest activists are not looking at passing record-clearing legislation as a one-and-done activity.

California is not the only state pushing to expand eligibility from its initial reforms. Following the passage of Pennsylvania’s clean slate bill in 2018, a provision requiring payment of fines and fees for clearance emerged as a major barrier to relief. One analysis found that half of otherwise eligible misdemeanor convictions statewide and 75 percent of otherwise eligible misdemeanor convictions in Philadelphia would be disqualified due to relatively small amounts of outstanding debt. Two years later activists succeeded in removing the fines and fees requirement in Pennsylvania.

On the federal level, two bipartisan bills to aid automatic record clearing have alsopicked up momentum and are scheduled for their first House Judiciary Committee markups later this month. One bill, the Clean Slate Act, would automatically seal federal arrest records for individuals who weren’t convicted, and records for individuals convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug offenses after successfully completing their sentence.

A second bill, the Fresh Start Act, would create a federal grant program to help states build the infrastructure necessary to implement automatic record clearing. President Joe Biden had floated this latter idea while on the campaign trail in 2020.

“Historic levels of bipartisan momentum have continued to trickle up from the states to Congress,” said Rebecca Vallas, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who helped develop the clean slate model.

For now, Jordan and other advocates in California remain optimistic that Newsom will sign SB 731 into law, even though the governor vetoed a bill last month to establish new supervised drug-injection sites. With rumors of presidential ambitions, some critics believe Newsom ducked signing the bill out of fear it would be used against him on a national campaign trail. A spokesperson for the governor, Omar Rodriguez, declined to comment on SB 731, but said “the bill will be evaluated on its merits.”


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.”





SB 731

  • 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.


Cleaning Up Your Record

Penal Code 851.8 PCCertificate of Factual Innocence in California

SB 393: The Consumer Arrest Record Equity Act851.87 – 851.92  & 1000.4 – 11105CARE ACT

Expungement California – How to Clear Criminal Records Under Penal Code 1203.4 PC

How to Vacate a Criminal Conviction in CaliforniaPenal Code 1473.7 PC

Seal & Destroy a Criminal Record

Cleaning Up Your Criminal Record in California (focus OC County)

Governor Pardons Click Here for the Details

How to Get a Sentence Commuted (Executive Clemency) in California

How to Reduce a Felony to a MisdemeanorPenal Code 17b PC Motion