Criminal law

California’s criminal justice reform offers a second chance


In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed into law a bill that seals some criminal records. The new law could reduce recidivism rates and help millions of ex-offenders find a job or housing.

Guest comment written by

Henry Ortiz

Henry Ortiz

Henry Ortiz is a senior staff member of the community organizer for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and coordinator of the Northern California chapter of the The time has been completeda national network of more than 80,000 people with old records.

If the goal is to make California safer, the state took a big step in the right direction last month after Gov. Gavin Newsom. Signed the groundbreaking legislation It gives people who have been arrested or convicted of a crime a real opportunity to change their lives.

Having spent 18 years living in prison facilities in our state, I know from personal experience how beneficial this can be.

By Democratic State Senator Maria Elena Durazo of Los Angeles, Senate Bill 731 It allows for nearly all old convictions to be permanently closed once a person has completed their entire sentence and has gone four additional years without any further contact with the justice system.

The law creates The most comprehensive sealing system in the countryand evidence of an old conviction or arrest record Not permanently banned Someone who achieves their goal of getting a second chance. And for the first time, record-breaking Californians will no longer be barred from getting good-paying jobs, living in stable housing, or contributing all of our talents to supporting our families and communities — instead of putting us back on the streets.

Almost 8 million people in California – 1 in 5 residents – have a criminal record. That means 8 million Californians that many employers won’t hire once they run a background check. This means 8 million people are struggling to secure housing because landlords will not rent it to them. This means that there are 8 million people who could be denied normal parenting opportunities, like the chance to volunteer at their children’s school or coach their children’s little league team – because of an old conviction.

And because so many people living with records have families, their partners and children are — through no fault of their own — also denied access to these basic necessities.

As a troubled teen growing up in Stockton and Los Angeles, I made some bad choices. Looking back, a lot of those choices stemmed from a basic desire to survive in a brutal environment, caught between poverty and neglect on the one hand, and the so-called war on drugs on the other.

But now, decades later, experience and wisdom have changed me. I’m not the same guy. And in prison, I created a nonprofit organization that worked to address the trauma experienced by so many who enter – or exit – our state’s justice system. Since my release, I have dedicated my life to healing community trauma in my hometown of Sacramento.

However, I am still not free. When I applied for jobs for which I was clearly qualified, I was rejected because of my record. When I tried to find housing, I was refused because of my record. Even though I have completed my sentence, been released from parole, and had no contact with the system, my record still haunts me.

Yes, there are terrible crimes that require accountability. But most of the people I met in prison were driven there by the will to survive in a hostile world. Unfortunately, the brutal and inhuman prison experience does little to improve matters – and sometimes makes them worse. Getting out of the system with a record leads to the kind of despondency that leads many people to repeat the choices that got them incarcerated in the first place.

If we are serious about protecting the safety of the people of California, we must continue to focus more of our energy and resources on prevention and recovery, rather than incarceration. Greater access to public health support, such as mental health services and substance abuse treatment – along with safe and stable housing, employment and education – would lead to much better outcomes.

Until then, California can be proud to once again lead the nation by expanding opportunity for the millions of people who have already paid their debt to society and want nothing more than an opportunity to help create the safety and well-being of our communities.

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