California aims to seal rap sheets of low-level criminals
After spending more than seven years in prison for robbery and auto theft, Jay Jordan tried to get work selling insurance, real estate and used cars, but was repeatedly turned away.
Former felons are often barred from obtaining professional licenses, and an opportunity to be a barber at a friend’s shop fell through for the same reason. A nonprofit program he started ran into trouble when a school sought to prevent him from meeting with students because of his criminal past – a history that began when he stole a car at 18, almost 15 years ago.
Under a bill now making its way through the California State Legislature, millions of people who have misdemeanor or lower-level felony records could be spared those problems: their criminal records would automatically be sealed from public view once they completed prison or jail sentences. The legislation would not apply to people convicted of committing the most serious crimes, like murder or rape.
“There are so many of us who just want to be better, but are constantly turned down, turned away,” said Jordan, who is now project director for Time Done, an Oakland nonprofit that works with people who have criminal records, and supports the legislation.
In the United States, a record showing a criminal conviction or even an arrest that does not lead to a conviction can make it nearly impossible for someone to find jobs or apartments or to obtain professional licenses.
One in three Americans has a criminal record, according to the Justice Department, and a National Institute of Justice study found that having a criminal record reduced the chance of getting a job offer or a callback by 50 percent.
The legislation, introduced last week in the Assembly, would make California – where an estimated 8 million people have criminal records – the first state to automatically scrub the rap sheets of people whose records qualify. The records would still be accessible to law enforcement agencies, but not to members of the general public, including landlords and employers.
The legislation is part of a larger push to overhaul elements of the nation’s criminal justice system by people who say it incarcerates too many people, wasting money and lives.
So far, the California proposal has raised few public objections, largely because it does not expand the range of crimes that can be sealed.
The legislation is expected to be approved by both chambers of the State Legislature, which are dominated by Democrats, in the current session.