By Henry Ortiz Reprinted by permission from Marin Independent Journal
If the goal is to make California safer, the state took major step in the right direction last month after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed groundbreaking legislation that gives people who have been arrested or convicted of a crime a genuine chance to turn their lives around.
Having spent 18 years living inside our state’s prison facilities, I know from personal experience how much this will help.
Authored by Democratic state Sen. María Elena Durazo of Los Angeles, Senate Bill 731 allows almost all old convictions to be permanently sealed once a person has fully completed their sentence and gone four additional years with no further contact with the justice system.
The law creates the most comprehensive sealing system in the nation, and ensures an old conviction or arrest record does not permanently prevent someone from achieving their goal of a second chance. For the first time, Californians with a record will no longer be restricted from getting good-paying jobs, living in stable housing, or contributing the full measure of our talents to supporting our families and communities—instead of being steered back into the streets.
Nearly 8 million people in California — 1 in 5 residents — have a criminal record. That’s 8 million Californians that many employers would not hire once they perform a background check. That’s 8 million human beings who struggle to secure housing because landlords will not rent to them. That’s 8 million people who could be denied normal parental opportunities, such as a chance to volunteer at their children’s school or coach their child’s little league team — because of an old conviction.
And because so many people living with records have families, their partners and children — through no fault of their own — are also denied access to these basic necessities.
As a troubled teenager who grew up in Stockton and Los Angeles, I made some bad choices. Looking back, a lot of those choices stemmed from a fundamental desire to survive in a brutal environment, where I was pinned between poverty and neglect on one side and the so-called war on drugs on the other.
But now, decades later, experience and wisdom have changed me. I am not the same man. In prison, I created a nonprofit organization that worked to address the trauma afflicting so many who come into — and out of — our state’s justice system. Since my release, I have dedicated my life to addressing community trauma in my adopted hometown of Sacramento.
Nevertheless, 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’ve tried to find housing, I have been denied because of my record. Even though I completed my sentence, was released from parole, and had no contact with the system, my record still haunts me.
Yes, there are horrible crimes that require accountability. But most of the people I met in prison were driven there by a will to survive in a hostile world. Sadly, the brutal, dehumanizing experience of incarceration does little to improve things — and sometimes makes them worse. Exiting the system with a record leads to the kind of desperation that pushes too many people to repeat the choices that got them imprisoned in the first place.
If we are serious about protecting the safety of people in California, we must continue to focus more of our energy and resources on prevention and healing, rather than incarceration. Increased access to public health supports, such as mental health services and substance use treatment — along with safe and stable housing and opportunities for employment and education — will generate far better results.
Until then, California can be proud about once again leading the nation by extending opportunities to the millions of people who have already paid their debt to society and want nothing more than the chance to help establish safety and well-being in our communities.