California lawmakers approved one of the most far-reaching criminal justice reform measures in the nation this year, a bill that drew relatively little fanfare among a parade of high-profile legislation.
The new law makes California the first state that will automatically seal most criminal records for those who complete their sentences.
Advocates pushed for the change because they said such records can prevent once-incarcerated people from getting jobs, housing, schooling and more. Jeff Selbin, the director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law, called the legislation “the most expansive and comprehensive record-clearing law of its kind in the country.”
The measure, which builds on an earlier state law, takes effect in July and will automatically seal conviction and arrest records for most ex-offenders who are not convicted of another felony for four years after completing their sentences. Records of arrests that didn’t lead to convictions will also be sealed.
There are some exceptions: People convicted of serious and violent felonies, as well as those requiring sex offender registration, won’t have their records cleared under the law. And criminal histories would still be disclosed in background checks when people apply to work in education, law enforcement or public office.
Some law enforcement advocates opposed the legislation, including the Peace Officers Research Association of California, the state’s largest law enforcement labor organization. The group raised concerns that the widespread sealing of conviction records could place communities at risk.
“By allowing violent criminals back on the street, with their record dismissed, they will have less deterrent to commit another crime,” the organization said in a statement.
But over the past few years, states have increasingly considered legislation to clear criminal records, a push known as the “Clean Slate” movement. The proliferation of online records has meant that people continue to be punished for their crimes long after their sentences end, in the form of discrimination and lost opportunities, advocates say. Such burdens fall disproportionately on Black and Latino communities, they assert.
“They say you pay your debt to society when you serve your time,” said Olu Orange, the director of the University of Southern California Dornsife Trial Advocacy Program. “If that is truly the case, then it ought to be over after you finish.”
Eight million people in California have a criminal record, and at least 225,000 will have an old conviction automatically sealed as a result of the new law, according to the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national criminal justice reform group.
María Elena Durazo, a Democratic state senator from Los Angeles who introduced the bill, said the law could allow millions of Californians to “reach their full employment and economic potential.”
“We cannot continue to pour billions of dollars into rehabilitative services while at the same time exclude people from positively contributing to their communities,” Durazo said in a statement. This law “will not only benefit the individual, but entire families and communities.”
Soumya Karlamangla is a reporter with the New York Times' California Today. Copyright, New York Times.