In Unprecedented Law, CA Will Seal Most Criminal Records

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.

9 Comments

  1. Just an Observation,

    I remember the concept that once your sentence os served, you have COMPLETED the either punitive or rehabilitation ordered by the state and the criminal code.

    Remember if you do not allow ANY constructive or productive ability to contribute to economic health of the public, you ONLY have criminal activity to use to survive, right?

    HB, do you have any other options to offer that is BETTER than this?

  2. JAFO, Agree that our justice system should endeavor to achieve positive behavior changes. But it fails about 50% of the time as measured over a 3 year period in California.

    SCC and state could indemnify losses resulting from hiring or housing ex-cons. Perhaps offer a tax break too.

    And another: offer bonuses to jails and prisons that demonstrate effective recidivism reduction programs. There’s currently no incentive for officials to improve outcomes.

  3. California has already been doing this for years. Just try to get the records on, for example, Robert Farmer, the man who was convicted of killing all those pet cats in the Cambrian Park area, or Robert Delgado III, who was convicted of running down and killing his neighbor for photographing him when he was driving like a maniac. You won’t find anything in the Superior Court records. Nada. It’s like these people (and the crimes they committed) never existed. (And, BTW, the ability for the public to access these records was blocked LONG BEFORE these criminals had served out their sentences). I think it’s wrong to keep this info from the public, when it’s in the public interest for people to be aware of these crimes and convictions, as well as the length of time these individuals actually served time as compared to the sentences meted out to them.

  4. With their records sealed, I suppose that even these former felons will be able to purchase firearms, since their name will not appear in a routine background check.

  5. I agree with Jafo here. If you pay a debt, to society or otherwise, then you should be free and clear, no encumbrances whatsoever. This should extend to getting back the right to vote. It’s insane that people who “paid their debt to society” are still not allowed to vote.

  6. Just an Observation,

    This process of condemning people from being able to equally conduct themselves productively is designed to further punish them.

    But this really is about the fact that those wanting to are AFRAID of having to COMPETE fairly regarding ability and productivity.

    In effect it can be argued that some that are trying to not cause more crime are MORE motivated to doing their jobs BETTER than those that have not been in a place where their freedom of choice is removed.

    But now that we have a permanent labor shortage, the economics are that we CANNOT afford to continue this practice. Otherwise inflation will never return to the target rate of 2% and interest rates will continue to make borrowing more expensive and put a lot of businesses out of business.

    So bringing up individual cases only supports the case of those INDIVIDUALS that you discuss. A guilt by association is not constitutional and by punishing all offenders with a broad brush is going to be VERY damaging to business as a whole.

    But most people I have seen here cannot deal with issues on a case by case basis, they want the amazon prime instant answer that “looks” good, but has very little benefit to the entire economic health of the state

  7. Man, some of the comments on this thread lack empathy. What happened to help thy neighbor or whatever?
    First off California allows formerly incarcerated people to vote the day they step out of prison. My prison sentence officially ended on October 27th and I voted in November. My vote was counted and accepted.
    Our background check system is the cause of the recidivism rate that has been mentioned here. Baring individuals from gainful employment is a direct cause for repeated criminal activity. I have met many people who have been unable to get an education and a job due to their conviction. Our system is terrible.
    If you’re inclined read “Why the Innocent Plead Guilty and the Guilty Go Free”
    by Jed S Rakoff.

    I think this is a great move for California. It’s a great move for our nation.

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