California advocates and lawmakers are working to change a state law so low-level criminal records are sealed automatically -- part of a growing effort by multiple states to give former offenders a better chance to re-immerse into society.
A bill in the Assembly would impact millions of Californians whose prior rap sheets advocates say present significant social obstacles. The bill, AB 1076, would ensure the automatic secrecy of records for certain offenders who've completed the requirements of their sentence. If passed, the law would take effect Jan. 1, 2021.
Last week, the Assembly voted 6-2 to send the bill to the Appropriations Committee, where it could be approved as early as this week. From there, the proposal is expected to pass both of California's Democratically-controlled legislative houses before it's sent to the desk of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The change would clear records for about 8 million people who've been arrested or convicted for misdemeanor and non-violent offenses. As part of the plan, the state would create a database that lists the cases that must remain secret. It also would retroactively seal records of any eligible person in the corrections system. They would be visible only to law enforcement, judges and investigative agencies.
Advocates and research say it's far more difficult for former offenders to find work and housing than non-offenders, because most employers, landlords and colleges screen for criminal records. A 2014 National Institute of Justice study found a prior record cuts a person's chance of getting a job offer -- or even a callback -- in half. Under the present system, they say, many eligible to seal their records aren't doing so.
"Because of cost, time or complexity they don't get their records expunged [now]," Assembly member Phil Ting, the bill's author, told UPI.
Automating the process, he said, will help free former offenders from "paper prisons" they must face with the current system. He also said the change would save money on both ends. Right now, it costs people about $3,700 to seal their record -- compared to zero under the new plan.
"The big difference is the state bears that cost, not the individual," Ting said, also contending the plan is a good investment for the state because more sealed records would mean fewer people depending on government assistance.
"If we can really get them to become more self-sufficient, get them greater opportunities ... longer term it will benefit California," he said.
"These things that everyday individuals are able to do, people with convictions aren't able to do for the rest of their life, and they pose no safety risk whatsoever," Jay Jordan, project director for Californians for Safety, added.
A number of state prosecutors support the change, particularly San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has not yet offered his opinion, but his office told UPI he's reviewing the proposal.
Some like Kern County Deputy District Attorney Joseph Kinzel, however, question whether the change is needed. The paper system, he said, is "not a steep burden" for former offenders.
California's would be the third law in the nation to automatically seal records. Pennsylvania and Utah have already passed similar laws that will take effect this year.
Pennsylvania's "Clean Slate" law, which uses an automated computer process to seal records, takes effect June 28.
"Clean Slate is an incredibly important piece of my administration's commitment to helping formerly incarcerated or arrested individuals get their lives back on track," Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement.
Utah's law, which automates the expungement process for those who stay crime-free for years after their sentences, takes effect May 14.
"[Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes] believes everyone benefits when we have members of society who contribute to their communities and who have a more clear path to getting their lives back on track," said Reyes' communications director Richard Piatt.
"We appreciate the work ... to create an automatic process to help contributing members of society clear their record through automatic expungement," he added.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert also supports the law.
"This innovation is emblematic of how we do things here in Utah," he said. "We punish wrongdoers appropriately ... and then we help them integrate back into society."
A report by the Collateral Consequences Resource Center on fair chance and expungement reforms called the Pennsylvania law the "most ambitious experiment in automation to date."
CCRC Executive Director Margaret Love said as states move toward automation, one important component is that people should be told when their record is cleared -- so they're aware of how to represent themselves for future opportunities.
"If a prosecutor has some objection to sealing, then a person should have an opportunity to say that the prosecutor is mistaken, or is imposing too strict a standard or is being unfair," Love said. "If you don't know what the issue is ... you don't get a chance to make your case."