A new push in California to automatically clear old arrest and conviction records

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San  Francisco  Dist.  Atty.  George Gascon, shown in 2014, on Thursday endorsed a bill that will automatically clear old arrest and criminal  records  from  offenders’  rap sheets. (Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

By Joseph Serna

A week after San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon moved to wipe out thousands of marijuana convictions dating back decades, he announced Thursday his support for a bill that would clear old arrest and conviction records for defendants statewide.

The measure is intended to open up a pathway to housing, education and new employment opportunities for millions of Californians who have been excluded because of old arrests or convictions for certain offenses still listed on their rap sheets.

“It’s a way to get people out of the paper prison they get sucked into once they have an arrest record or conviction,” Gascon said. “When you remove the ability for people to participate fully in their community — employment, housing, education, other activities — you marginalize them until they’re left with no hope.

“Without hope, they’re more likely to create crimes in that very same community, and what we’re trying to do is reduce the chance of recidivizing.”

The bill, AB 1076, introduced by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) in February, would mandate that the state Department of Justice automatically clear records of arrests that did not result in a conviction after the statute of limitations has passed, as well as convictions involving probation and jail once an offender’s sentence was completed. Anyone who has to register as a sex offender or has violated their probation would not be eligible.

Most of the records eligible involve drugs or property crimes, officials said. People who committed crimes that ended with a state prison sentence — not in a local jail — would have to go through the process that currently exists to receive a certificate of rehabilitation.

The bill would affect some 380,000 people currently incarcerated for crimes or awaiting trial and the millions more eligible going back in time, officials said. About 8 million Californians have criminal convictions on their records.

“The whole point is they paid their debt, they served their time. Once they get out they should be able to start over,” Ting said. “Once they’re out, why should they continue to suffer?”

An individual’s arrest record and criminal past would still be accessible to law enforcement and certain other agencies but would not be available to landlords or employers, among others, conducting background checks. That means, outside specific exclusions listed in state code, individuals would not have to answer “yes” to having previous arrests or convictions when filling out a job or housing application if they were never convicted or already completed their sentence.

About 90% of employers, 80% of landlords and 60% of colleges screen criminal records, Ting’s office said. Three-quarters of individuals with criminal convictions report job or housing instability, and the process to clear one’s record is notoriously costly and complicated.

Jay Jordan was one of those who struggled to get back on his feet despite having a plan for his life on the outside. Jordan, 33, served time in jail and prison on auto theft and robbery convictions before he was released in 2012.

“We all do this. Everyone around me with a date [of release] was doing the same thing. We create plans, very detailed plans,” Jordan said with a laugh. “I wanted to sell used cars for residual income, sell vending machines. I had it down even to the taxes I was going to have to pay.”

But Jordan said he didn’t qualify for any of those professions because of his record. He ended up working at a temporary employment agency alongside other former inmates, he said, where he injured himself and was then fired after missing work.

“Here I was, trying to do the right thing, trying to do a job that gives me a livable wage, and I get fired for getting hurt,” Jordan said. “I didn’t have any workers’ rights, and I realized very rapidly that something was inherently wrong with this system.”

He ended up joining a nonprofit organization and now pushes for criminal justice reform as the director of the Second Chance project with Californians for Safety and Justice.

“Where’s the opportunity for the people out there trying hard to get a job?” Jordan said. “Working hard to take care of their families and at every single corner they’re [told], ‘You can’t do this for the rest of your life. You can’t do that for the rest of your life.’”

Jordan’s prison sentence for robbery was not eligible to be cleared, but time he spent in jail for auto theft was, authorities said.

If passed, the bill would take effect Jan. 1, 2021. The extended lead time between its introduction and its implementation would allow the Department of Justice to set up the automated process that the bill would require, Ting said. A previous attempt to get the state to proactively clear people’s records through the courts was too labor-intensive and costly, Ting said. The costs to automate the record-clearing process have not yet been determined.

Joseph Serna is a Metro reporter who has been with the Los Angeles Times since 2012. He previously worked for papers in Orange County and Signal Hill, a 2.2-square-mile city surrounded by Long Beach. He was part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News for coverage of the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack and is a graduate of California’s community college and Cal State systems.

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