Back to What's New

Criminal records, even minor ones, mean life of obstacles, report says

Nearly 80 percent of Californians with even low-level criminal records struggle to find a job, locate housing or achieve other hallmarks of success despite having paid their full debt to society, according to a sweeping new report published Thursday.

About 8 million Californians, or 1 in 5 people throughout the state, have such records — and they’re subject to thousands of restrictions, large and small, imposed on freed people with a criminal history, the report says.

Its authors recommend far-reaching reforms around the state, including purging some criminal records and reducing barriers to obtaining occupational licenses.

“We’re not saying people shouldn’t be held accountable,” said Jay Jordan, director of the Second Chances Program at Californians for Safety and Justice, the criminal-justice nonprofit that compiled the report. “We’re saying this is an epidemic, and we are continuously handing out these convictions.”

The study’s release comes at a time when California is stepping away from long-standing tough-on-crime policies that resulted in mass incarceration around the country. The state has embraced several reform efforts in recent years, enacting laws to reduce its prison populations, decriminalize marijuana and reduce certain felonies to misdemeanors.

Thursday’s report, “Repairing the Road to Redemption in California,” argues that more work needs to be done to help shepherd people back into normal lives after they’ve done their time or paid their fines. Barring people from re-entering society can force them to fall back on bad old habits.

“Rather than protecting public safety, blanket restrictions and systemic barriers contribute to the cycle of crime,” the report reads.

Some, however, argue that the state’s progressive new trend already goes too far.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group, said he agrees that some tweaks could be made to a person’s criminal record. However, “In many areas of criminal law recently, we have seen people using chain saws where they should be using pruning shears,” he said.

Scheidegger used the example of Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that reduced some theft and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

“Prop. 47 was a very crude approach that went too far,” he said. “So I think we should have a method of letting people back in for license requirements, but I think it needs to be done carefully.”

Tamisha Walker, 36, felt the weight of her arson conviction just after her 2009 release from Contra Costa County jail. A Burlington department store was staffing its new Richmond branch, and Walker badly needed a job.

Walker said she made it to a second round of interviews, where a woman who was “all smiles” shook her hand.

“She said, ‘I hope I’ll see you back soon,’” Walker recalled. “Then she went back and dropped my application in a box on the (rejection) side of the desk.”

For Walker, a felony conviction derailed her chances of employment not only at Burlington but also at fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Taco Bell. It also complicated her attempts to find housing and regain custody of her children.

“I’m just happy to be out in the free world, but nobody explained to me that unless you are a really strong person, a lot of people give up,” said Walker, who now runs a Richmond organization that helps formerly incarcerated individuals re-enter the community.

Thursday’s report was a culmination of research that sheds a light on how far-reaching the roadblocks can be for anyone with a rap sheet.

Researchers surveyed more than 2,000 people with criminal records — ranging from minor drug busts to more serious crimes like robbery — and found that 5 in 10 had difficulty finding a job, 4 in 10 had difficulty obtaining occupational licenses and 2 in 10 had trouble finding housing. Five in 10 also struggled to pay their criminal fines and fees.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said he’s interested in taking the idea of “sunset convictions” to the next state legislative session. He said that while relief is available for people who have successfully completed probation and paid their restitution, the current system makes them jump through hoops to get it.

“Government shouldn’t be in the business of waiting for the community to take action; it should be in the business of taking action for the community,” he said in a statement. “That’s why my office has been working on a proposal to reform these policies.”

Second Chances Program Director Jordan, who is 33 now and was convicted for robbery when he was 19, said he never knew about the “collateral consequences” when he accepted a plea agreement.

“When I signed my deal I was a dumb kid,” he said. “I didn’t know I could never adopt or never coach my son’s Little League team.”

The list goes on, he said. Jordan also can’t be a dog walker or a bingo caller, or get a barbering license or real estate license.

Jordan said the inspiration for the report came from expungement clinics, where the tagline is “change your record, change your life.” Such clinics help people erase criminal convictions from their records if they’ve properly atoned.

But even when someone receives an expungement, Jordan said, a conviction still continues to haunt him or her. The records turn up on the dozens of court repositories around the state, not to mention the countless private companies offering online background checks.

While most of the state’s convictions stemmed from misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies, Jordan said most people still justify the many restrictions on all of those with records by saying they want to keep dangerous people, particularly murderers and rapists, out of the workplace, day care or other sensitive environments.

Jordan said the report’s recommendations are intended for people who have fully paid their debt to society and have remained crime-free for years. Freed murderers are typically given a lifetime of probation, he said, and sex offenders have to sign up on registries.

“But the narrative is always being controlled by this select few,” he said.

Megan Cassidy
San Francisco Chronicle

Stay Connected