California bill would give ex-cons sentenced under realignment chance to expunge conviction

Erika Aguilar/KPCC

Some employment applications ask candidates if he or she has ever been convicted of a felony. A state bill up for vote this week would allow a former jail inmate sentenced under realignment to ask a judge to expunge their criminal conviction, which would allow them to technically answer "no" on private employment applications.

“Have you been convicted of a felony…”

Anyone that has applied for a job recognizes that question, and it sometimes comes up on housing applications.

“The question is demoralizing,” Joseph Paul told state lawmakers back in April.

Paul, who had served prison time for convictions from 20 years ago, said the question could have derailed his future. He’s a program manager for a Los Angeles-based group that helps people who are exiting the criminal justice system re-enter the workforce and find a job.  

“These men and women who have paid for the consequences of their crimes deserve a better chance,” he testified. 

The California state Senate is considering a bill that would give people convicted of a so-called "realignment crime" (non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offense) an opportunity to ask a judge to expunge their criminal conviction. Expungements don’t erase a conviction from someone’s criminal record — instead, it’s listed as dismissed and expunged on a background check.

If an ex-con is granted an expungement, he or she can check the “no” box when answering questions about past convictions on private employment applications.

The bill’s author, Assembly Member Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), told lawmakers during testimony in April that the proposed legislation would help bring down jail recidivism rates. He testified that employers often refuse to consider any applicant that answers yes to that question, even if the candidate is qualified for the job.

“If an individual can’t find a job ... if you can’t find housing, if you can’t get a student loan,” Bradford said, “chances are you are going to revert back to what you know, and that’s the criminal lifestyle.”

Under the proposed legislation, an ex-con sentenced under realignment would have had to complete the jail sentence, including county mandatory supervision if it’s ordered, and wait up to two years before applying for a petition. A judge would decide whether to hear the expungement petition and whether to grant one.

An expunged conviction can eventually disappear from someone’s criminal record after 10 years if that person isn’t convicted of another crime. In certain situations, a person could get a felony conviction dropped to a misdemeanor. But this remedy is only available to those sentenced to felony probation, say advocates of the bill.   

Kimberly Horiuchi is a criminal justice and drug policy attorney for the ACLU of California. The civil rights organization is one of the bill’s co-sponsors. Other prisoner re-entry groups and public defender associations have showed support for it.

“People who are placed on realignment have nothing in existing law right now that would allow them an opportunity to get an expungement for crimes that were previously sentenced to felony probation,” Horiuchi said.

The California District Attorneys Association argues that this group shouldn’t even be eligible to have their convictions expunged. The association’s legislation director Cory Salzillo said, had it not been for realignment, these jail inmates would have been state prisoners who aren’t eligible for expungements.

“That the only difference that we’re talking about here is where the felon sleeps when they are incarcerated,” he said.

The bill is scheduled for a third vote on the state Senate floor that could take it up on Friday. All bills must be passed before the legislative session ends Sept. 13.

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