New Legislation Aims to Seal Old Criminal Records for 8 Million Californians

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The entrance to San Quentin State Prison in Marin County on June 29, 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A state lawmaker wants to make it easier for people who have been arrested or convicted of a crime and subsequently turned their lives around to seal their legal records.

At issue is whether the 8 million Californians who have served their time, or been arrested, but not charged, should be able to do fundamental things like get jobs, volunteer at their kids’ schools or secure housing. Many of those opportunities are off limits to people with criminal records, even if their convictions have technically been expunged.

The bill, by Los Angeles state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, calls for all arrest records that don’t result in a conviction to be sealed so they are not publicly accessible. It would also allow records to be sealed for people convicted of felonies who have subsequently finished their prison or jail time and parole or probation, and stayed out of trouble for two years. The measure would exclude sex offenders.

"Coming out of the labor movement, to me, the key is a good job. It's the way to build a better life. It's a way to protect and support our loved ones," said Durazo, a Democrat, noting that current law requires the state to keep someone's record on file for 100 years.

"These men and women have completed the sentence they were given. Many of them took classes, enrolled in counseling while they were incarcerated. They pursued rehabilitation work to be ready for their reentry after their release. Instead of being able to put their new skills to use, they are hit with hundreds, if not thousands of restrictions and limitations that keep them from building a new life," she said.

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Durazo ticked off the restrictions: In addition to being barred from many jobs and professional licenses, people with criminal records can be denied rental housing or membership in homeowners' associations. They can also be prevented from coaching youth sports and blocked from receiving everything from financial aid and other educational opportunities to food stamps and passports.

"All we do is drive those people to the margins of our society," she said. "I say, when an individual has taken responsibility for their actions completely, California should provide them tools to turn the page and give them the new opportunities."

Supporters of the bill note that some 57% of working-age Black Californians have criminal records, and estimate that the barriers facing them and millions of other adults are costing California $20 million a year in lost economic benefits.

Although the legislation may face some pushback, prosecutors appear open to the discussion.

Larry Morse, legislative director for the California District Attorneys Association, said Durazo's measure was clearly written carefully, with law enforcement concerns in mind.

Morse said the association, which represents 3,500 elected and line prosecutors around California, hasn't yet taken an official position on the measure, but is open to the idea that an arrest or conviction shouldn't be a "mark of Cain" for someone's entire life.

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"Our issue will be, does it shield people from having to disclose certain convictions that employers should have a heads up about?" he said, citing an example of a person who went to prison for embezzling from a senior and then wanted to get a job at a nursing home.

But Morse said his group is in agreement with the "premise" of the bill.

"The most important thing is that there's nothing worse than being charged with a crime you didn't commit and for that to come back and haunt a person down the road," he said. "It's unacceptable."

Los Angeles resident Stephanie Jeffcoat said she spent 10 years in and out of jail for crimes related to her drug addiction. But after getting sober, she had job offers rescinded because of that record.

"When is our time ever going to be done? Even though we have gone to jail, gone to prison, we've served our time, there's still so many barriers that we are faced with upon our release," said Jeffcoat, who is now an organizer at the Los Angeles-based advocacy group A New Way of Life, which works to restore rights to formerly incarcerated people.

Jeffcoat said that allowing people to move on from their past convictions will make everyone safer, noting that barriers to employment, housing and other opportunities can actually increase the chance that someone will offend again.

"People end up having to commit what we call these 'survival crimes,' because they're not able to get employment. They're not able to fully provide for their families," she said. "So now they have to go back to doing things that they did before that may have sent them to jail or prison just so they could be able to survive and provide for their families."