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Millions of Criminal Records Cleared After Landmark California Law Takes Effect

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Officer Louis Wong with the San Francisco Police Department with a jar of marijuana as he prepares to arrest a young man for drug possession in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco on Jan. 2, 2013. (Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

This story contains a correction.

More than 11 million arrest and conviction records have been wiped clean in the first six months of the implementation of a new California law, marking the largest expungement over that time period in the country’s history.

The mass expungement follows the years-long effort by lawmakers and voters dating back to 2016 — when marijuana was legalized in the state — to clear certain criminal records and open up employment and housing opportunities for Californians.

“After someone has completed their sentence and paid their debts, we cannot continue to allow old legal records to create barriers to opportunity that destabilize families, undermine our economy, and worsen racial injustices,” Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) said in a press statement.

Ting authored AB 1076, a 2019 law which requires the state’s Dept. of Justice to review and automatically clear certain non-serious offense records for people who already completed their sentence or diversion program, or if their arrest did not lead to a conviction.

Expungements of records under the law began a year ago. Between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2022, more than 8.4 million arrests that never resulted in a conviction were cleared from Californians’ records, according to the latest relief data from the DOJ (PDF). More than 2.6 million conviction records were also expunged during the same time period.

“We have over 58 million records that represent 6 to 7 million people in California that just weren’t getting their records expunged,” Jay Jordan, CEO of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a public safety advocacy organization, told KQED. “As a result, they couldn’t find good-paying jobs, they couldn’t get apartments, and they couldn’t do things like coach their kid’s Little League teams.”

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In 2016, California voters approved Proposition 64, which legalized cannabis and required the state to expunge prior cannabis-related records that were no longer considered criminal.

But while cannabis sales and businesses were quick to boom after legalization, expungement for prior convictions was slow because the process largely fell on individuals to do the work of determining whether they are eligible and bringing their case up for review.

Individuals who wanted to expunge an arrest or a completed sentence from their record typically would have to go to court, fill out a CR-180 form to apply for dismissal, pay around $125, coordinate with the district attorney’s office, then be granted a court date for when their case could be reviewed.

“People didn’t have the time or money to do it,” said Jordan.

In 2018, under former Gov. Jerry Brown, the state approved AB 1793 to help speed up the process by automating it and requiring courts to identify all eligible cannabis-related records and seal them, removing the onus to do so from affected people who may not even know they are eligible. Rollout of AB 1793 was uneven, however, and many local agencies delayed the process as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted court proceedings across the state.

To get the effort moving again, in 2019, Ting’s bill automated expungements for eligible arrests and convictions and expanded eligibility to every misdemeanor – not just those related to cannabis – so long as the arrest didn’t result in a prison sentence and if the person completed their sentence.

The DOJ, along with the nonprofit Code for America, created an automated system that started expunging records on July 1, 2022. That will now continue on a rolling basis.

An Asian man in a suit and tie speaks from behind a dais with a California emblem.
Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) at a community meeting about language access and the Affordable Care Act on Aug. 14, 2013. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

Specifically for cannabis-related sentences, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 1706 in Sept. 2022, which required counties and courts to seal eligible cannabis-related records if they had not been challenged by March 2023.

Bay Area counties such as San Francisco, San Mateo and Sonoma had sealed nearly all of those records that were found to be eligible as of April 6, 2023, according to a June report from the DOJ (PDF). Others, like Contra Costa and Alameda counties, have a higher proportion of cases to get through.

The DOJ report showed a racial equity gap among people who are relieved from their past cannabis-related arrests or sentences under AB 1706. More white men have been both found eligible and granted relief, compared with Hispanic, Black, Asian or other racial groups, according to the DOJ report.

In addition, lawmakers in 2022 passed another bill, SB 731, which creates a pathway to sealing records for a much wider range of criminal convictions beyond cannabis, excluding sex offenses. Under that bill, a person can apply to seal their records within four years of completing a sentence, as long as they don’t have a new arrest. Some agencies like schools and police, however, can still access the criminal history, but it would not show up in regular background checks.

“California laws that prevent people living with a past conviction or arrest record from positively contributing to our communities make us all less safe,” Ting said.

This story includes reporting by KQED’s Billy Cruz.

July 10: An earlier version of this story conflated AB 1076 with AB 1706. This story has been edited to correct the inaccuracy.

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