California bill that would seal records could help millions

State lawmakers passed legislation Thursday allowing some Californians with criminal convictions to seal those records if they keep a clean record, a move hailed by advocates of criminal justice reform and harshly criticized by law enforcement officials.

Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat who authored Senate Bill 731, said sealing the records would remove the burdens on previously incarcerated individuals who face discrimination in their re-entry into society, including when applying for jobs and housing . Because California law keeps criminal records public long after the prison term has ended, these convictions often surface during background checks.

“About 75% of ex-prisoners are still unemployed a year after their release,” Durazo said. “So something is wrong there. We expect them to get back on their feet, but we don’t give them the resources to get jobs and [have] Career.”

The Senate approved the bill in a final 28:10 vote and will consider it alongside Gov. Gavin Newsom. The assembly passed the law in June.

If the law is signed, school districts, county education departments, charter schools, private schools and state special schools that conduct background checks on job applicants will continue to provide criminal records. Individuals whose records are sealed would also be required to disclose their criminal records if asked to do so when applying for a law enforcement or public office job. Registered sex offenders were excluded from the legislation, and those convicted of serious and violent crimes had to apply to a court to have their records sealed.

The law would permanently and electronically seal most felony convictions after a person has fully served their sentence, including probation at any time, and require a specified number of consecutive years without an arrest. The law would also apply to people charged with a crime who have served time in state prison and who have a record of an arrest that never resulted in a conviction.

Law enforcement agencies, courts and the Department of Justice would still have access to the records.

But law enforcement groups have raised public safety concerns by hiding certain criminal records from the public.

The Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, the state’s largest law enforcement agency, feared that expanding felony easing would put communities at risk, a concern shared by other law enforcement advocates.

“A government that has more open records is more open to the public,” said Frank Huntington, president of California Assn. by licensed investigators to The Times.

Huntington agreed that people with a criminal background are discriminated against and said the association is open to reducing reporting requirements to a shorter period.

“Sealing records completely… we have a big problem with that,” Huntington said, adding that private investigators would lose access to court records, which are a cornerstone of their job, which includes extensive background checks.

Under current law, individuals arrested on suspicion of a misdemeanor or serving time in a county jail for a felony may, with similar exceptions, be entitled to have their records sealed. Proposed legislation expands this possibility to people with additional felony convictions, including those who have served state prison sentences.

Supporters of the bill argue that lack of access to employment and housing is driving recidivism rates and constraining California’s economic development.

Jay Jordan, executive director of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice nonprofit and co-sponsor of the bill, said people will be relegated to “post-conviction poverty” by forcing them to live in marginalized neighborhoods.

“People wonder why these people are being killed? This is because they live in unsafe areas.”

Jordan said he and his wife struggled to adopt a child because of his previous criminal record.

Jessica Sanchez, who was previously detained for a short time but has asked not to disclose the reason to protect her privacy if the law is passed, said her records and housing restrictions have forced her to return to the to draw neighborhood in which she grew up.

“I want to live in better communities, but I can’t,” Sanchez said of her central Los Angeles neighborhood. For a short time, she and her daughters had to move to an emergency shelter because of burglaries in one of the first apartments. “I can’t take my kids to go for a walk in the park.”

Sanchez said it took her nine months to find an apartment where she wouldn’t be asked about her criminal record.

“I just want a safe place to come home to,” she said. “They see that I’m a single parent, I have visible tattoos, and then they see that I check the box and they say, ‘No, never mind.’ You don’t even get a call back. As someone trying to leave it all behind, I’m stuck in the same place where the chaos happened. How does this work?”

Because of her criminal history, Sanchez, a mother of two, said she will start looking for new apartments before her lease expires in January. She knew the application process would take a long time and she needed to move on now. Today, she works in administration at Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that helps victims of gang violence and other formerly incarcerated people return to society.

Sanchez hopes to enroll in law school, but worries that if she checks the box that indicates she has a criminal record, she won’t qualify for certain scholarships.

“What if I want to live my life differently and I don’t want anyone to know I’ve ever been in prison?” she said. “Why can’t that be a possibility for me?” California bill that would seal records could help millions

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