Bill Watch

Automating the Expungement Process to Free Californians From Their “Paper Prisons”

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

Approximately two million Californians are eligible to have old arrests and certain crimes cleared from their records under state law, according to San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.

Yet, most never successfully clear their records—because of the complicated petition process and associated fees, and because many are unaware that they are eligible for such relief. Fewer than one-out-of-five people successfully complete the process.

“Millions of Californians are living in a paper prison,” said District Attorney George Gascón. “A huge number of people are entitled to relief that they’ll never realize because they have to jump through hoops to get it.”

These lingering marks on criminal records can keep people from being able to access housing, employment, and education. People with criminal convictions must contend with thousands of legal restrictions that often make successful reentry far more challenging. Even old arrests that did not result in criminal convictions can block the path to employment.

On Thursday, DA Gascón and CA Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) announced the arrival of AB 1076, a new bill that would automatically complete expungement and resentencing processes for people convicted of eligible low-level offenses (not violent crimes and sex offenses), as well as people with arrests that never resulted in criminal convictions, as long as the statute of limitations has passed. The bill would also clear eligible convictions for people who served time in local jails or on probation, as long as they remain crime-free afterward.

Last month, Gascón announced that his office, with help from an algorithm created by Code for America, had identified and cleared more than 9,300 marijuana-related convictions eligible for either expungement or resentencing under voter-approved Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana.

While Gascón is not the only proactive DA working to automatically clear convictions under Prop. 64, many local district attorneys, including LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey have resisted taking on the task of automatically clearing marijuana convictions, leaving it up to the standard petition system.

Starting in 2021, AB 1076 would require the California Department of Justice to regularly examine the state’s criminal history database to identify individuals who are eligible to have their records cleaned.

“With a few key strokes California can enhance public safety and equity while reducing recidivism and taxpayer spending,” Gascón said. “AB 1076 will not only modernize our system of justice, it’s a model for the justice system.”

The proposed changes would be cheaper, too. While it costs approximately $3,800 to clear each record under the current system, it would cost an automated system approximately four cents to wipe a conviction.

Those cleared convictions and arrests would still be visible to law enforcement, but not to landlords, colleges, and employers. According to Assemblymember Ting’s office, approximately 90 percent of employers, 80 percent of landlords, and 60 percent of colleges run criminal background checks on applicants.

In one survey from Californians for Safety and Justice, 76 percent of respondents said that their past convictions negatively impacted their ability to find stable housing and employment, pay fines and fees, and obtain an occupational certification.

“Everybody deserves a second chance,” Ting said. “There is a great cost to our economy and society when we shut out job-seeking workers looking for a better future.”

Image by Assemblymember Phil Ting’s office.

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  • Boy this makes me uncomfortable because the lack of definition of “low level” crime & what may have been involved in the original arrest & or conviction such as a plea bargain to reduce charge. I think our amazingly thoughtful & progressive DA ought to consider amending low level crimes such as shop lifting, petty theft, auto theft, all drug possession, drunk driving, graffiti, etc to be civil violations instead of criminal matters. Just think how he could claim being the genesis of California’s striking drop in crime. Crime after all, is because we have a problem with definitions & DA Gascon has the clearest vision.

  • Very well put and extremely germane. I wonder how much the lack of definition would hinder expungement. Seems the people who input the data would need clear and concise instructions to be assured of accuracy. Two simple thoughts to live by; 1) Do unto others 2) Humans are the only race that are publicly known. They make it much easier to cut through the media crust and live well.

  • This an example of how the liberal justice warriors think, it is okay for career convicted criminals to get a second chance, it is not okay for deputies falsely accused to get a second chance. If deputies were accused, although not even arrested, deputies still should be punished extremely.

  • Joe Nobuckles,

    I am all for giving deputies a second chance, but, like everyone else getting a second chance, only after they do their time. Then we can expunge their record. And, sounds to me what you are asking is not a second chance, but for them to keep their jobs. Please, who of the folks this article refers to will keep their job if they do something wrong, or even nothing wrong, but after they are arrested. None, so what makes you so special that you can commit a crime, or any offense, and still be able to keep your job. Those days are over.

  • That is the problem CF, that punishing a person only for being a deputy, without evidence of wrongdoing is not only immoral, it is criminal.

    It is no diferent that framing a black or Mexican person only because statistically speaking they are more prone to commit a crime, assuming the stats are correct.

    So if you are okay with that line of thinking, then you lose credibility when complaining about your people being blacked, framed by the police. If you are going to fight for justice, and speak for justice it should be all the way around, not only the people you identify best with.

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