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Second Chances: California Clears Criminal Records, Including Violent Crimes

by Jo Ellen Nott


California is at the forefront of change in criminal justice reform with a new law, Senate Bill 731, allowing people with felony convictions, even violent ones, to petition to have their records sealed. This reform offers a fresh start for many Golden Staters who have served their time and are committed to rebuilding their lives.

            Senate Bill 731 went into effect in mid-2023 providing Californians with most kinds of felony convictions, including violent crimes, the opportunity to ask for their records to be cleared. Applicants must have fully served their sentences, including probation, and have gone two years without being re-arrested to be eligible. Sex offenders are not included.

Senate Bill 731 is a turning point for many ex-felons, affording them opportunity after incarceration.Nick C. exemplifies the transformative potential of this law. Thirteen years ago, he sat in an Alameda County jail facing decades in prison and the grim reality of perhaps never seeing his children again. Having been charged with attempted murder after a “bar fight went sideways,” Nick pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon.

            After paying his debt to society, Nick took anger management classes, earned a GED, and scored an apprenticeship with an electrician’s union that was not put off by his record. He works nights, got his children back, and recently bought a house. His criminal record, however, has continued to hold him back, particularly from higher-paying opportunities. The chance to clear his record provides hope for a brighter future, both professionally and personally.

            Because Nick has stayed out of trouble since the bar fight that landed him in prison, he is eligible to ask a judge to dismiss the case and seal it from public view. He began that process by getting his fingerprints scanned at a local church where the Anti-Recidivism Coalition held a clinic to answer questions from former justice-involved individuals and help them begin the process of clearing their criminal record.

            Nick is eager to clear his record since it blocks him from certain job sites such as government construction projects, which are much better paid. He hopes an expungement will open more professional doors. He also wants the expungement to “show my kids that my past is my past, and that’s where it’s going to stay.”

Expanding expungement offers a broader path to reintegration and for more people. Before 2022, California only allowed expungement for misdemeanors and some non-violent felonies. Senate Bill 731 significantly expands eligibility by allowing people with most felony convictions and aligns with the growing national movement for “clean slate” laws that aim to remove the burden of a criminal record for those who have demonstrably turned their lives around.

Senate Bill 731 also includes a groundbreaking automatic sealing provision.Starting in July 2024, non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual felony convictions will be automatically sealed from public view for those who have completed their sentences and remained crime-free for four years. This eliminates the need for legal representation and streamlines the process for many Californians.

The impact of expungement extends far beyond enhanced employment opportunities. Sealed records allow individuals to participate more fully in life after prison, from chaperoning their children’s field trips to holding positions in community organizations or running for political office. While the benefits of record clearing are significant, concerns have been raised.

Prosecutors and police associations have been vocally opposed, saying in 2022 that it would pose public safety risks. Prosecutors argue that automatic expungement could hinder public safety by limiting access to an offender’s complete criminal history.

Additionally, some employers, particularly those in regulated industries, express concern about the ability to conduct thorough background checks. California’s law attempts to address these concerns. Judges retain discretion to deny expungement petitions for violent crimes, and certain employers can still access sealed records.

Automatic expungement is not a green light for a discrimination-free application process, either. Shawn Bushway with the RAND Corporation studies ex-offenders’ employment rates. He believes that a judge’s approval for an expungement works in the individual’s favor, proving that he or she has been rehabilitated.

Bushway points to research done after some states passed “Ban the Box” laws that blocked employers from asking job seekers if they had a criminal record. The research shows that some businesses will discriminate based on race or other grounds if they cannot do so by criminal convictions.

The long-term impact of California’s record-clearing law is unknown. It is crucial to monitor its effectiveness in reducing recidivism and increasing employment opportunities. Addressing administrative hurdles, such as ensuring defendants are notified of expungements, also remains important.

California will be well served to evaluate the success of Senate Bill 731 and address the challenges in implementing it. Research suggests that expungement improves public safety by facilitating reintegration and reducing recidivism rates.

Sources: Senate Bill 731, Long Beach Post

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