After spending more than seven years in prison for robbery and auto theft, Jay Jordan tried to get work selling insurance, real estate and used cars, but was repeatedly turned away, he said.
People with a felony record are often barred from obtaining professional licenses, and an opportunity to be a barber at a friend’s shop fell through for the same reason. A nonprofit program he started ran into trouble when a school sought to prevent him from meeting with students because of his criminal past — a history that began when he stole a car at 18, almost 15 years ago.
Under a bill now making its way through the California State Legislature, millions of people in the state who have misdemeanor or lower-level felony records could be spared those problems: their criminal records would automatically be sealed from public view once they completed prison or jail sentences. The legislation would not apply to people convicted of committing the most serious crimes, like murder or rape.
“There are so many of us who just want to be better, but are constantly turned down, turned away,” said Mr. Jordan, who is now project director for Time Done, a program that is part of Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit that advocates to make the criminal justice system less punitive.
In the United States, a record showing a criminal conviction or even an arrest that does not lead to a conviction can make it nearly impossible for someone to find jobs or apartments or to obtain professional licenses like those required in many states for barbers or real estate agents.
One in three Americans has a criminal record, according to the Justice Department, and a National Institute of Justice study found that having a criminal record reduced the chance of getting a job offer or a callback by 50 percent.
The legislation, introduced last week in the State Assembly, would make California — where an estimated eight million people have criminal records — the first state in the nation to automatically scrub the rap sheets of people whose records qualify. The law would apply retroactively, meaning that people arrested or convicted of various crimes dating back decades would have their records automatically sealed. The records would still be accessible to law enforcement agencies, but not to members of the general public, including potential landlords and employers.
The legislation is part of a larger push to overhaul elements of the nation’s criminal justice system by people who say it incarcerates too many people, wasting money and lives.
In recent years, dozens of states and municipalities have prohibited employers from asking job -candidates about prior arrests; prosecutors have moved to clear convictions for marijuana possession; and police chiefs have instructed officers to stop arresting people for low-level crimes.
A law approved in Pennsylvania last year automatically clears the records of people with misdemeanor offenses if, after 10 years, they have not been convicted of any other crime.
So far, the California proposal has raised few public objections, largely because it does not expand the range of crimes that can be sealed. Under current law, people in California can seek to have records of misdemeanors and low-level felonies sealed by making a formal request to a court; under the new legislation, sealing would happen automatically.
Under the current rules, it’s rare that people pursue sealing their records, and most don’t even know it is an option, according to George Gascón, San Francisco’s district attorney. Only about 20 percent of those eligible to get their records sealed in California actually do so. (Mr. Jordan said he was among people who didn’t know, at first, that sealing his record was an option.)
In an interview, Mr. Gascón, a Democrat, acknowledged that the legal system, including his own office, was partly responsible for the low rate. Mr. Gascón said he decided that it was critical to shift the burden away from individuals, and onto the judicial system.
“People don’t understand how it works, or they don’t have the capacity to get it done,” he said. “We cannot keep people caged in a paper prison for the rest of their lives.”
Offenses that would qualify to be automatically sealed under the new legislation are identical to those that people are permitted to seek to have sealed now, said Phil Ting, the State Assembly member, a Democrat, who introduced the bill.
Those crimes include certain felonies, like burglary and other property crimes and drug offenses, and all misdemeanors.
For felonies, eligibility would depend, in part, on how severe the punishment for them was; crimes that earned a jail sentence, rather than a term in state prison, would generally qualify.
The California Justice Department would decide which cases would be eligible for sealing; county prosecutors could contest the state’s decisions in specific cases if they feared that public safety was at risk.
Still uncertain, the bill’s backers say, is exactly how many people the legislation would affect, but they estimate that the number will be in the millions.
The legislation is expected to be approved by both chambers of the State Legislature, which are dominated by Democrats, in the current session.
Joseph Kinzel, a deputy district attorney in Kern County, said the automatic sealing of records might overwhelm local courts and prosecutors’ offices. He said that the current system — in which people with records must petition courts — is hardly onerous.
“It’s not a steep burden, and it’s not too much to ask,” he said.
But former inmates say the process can be intimidating, time-consuming and expensive.
According to the state’s website, the process includes as many as a dozen steps and can involve paying a fee of up to $150.
Some advocates for overhauling the criminal justice system say California’s legislation could go farther.
Margaret Colgate Love, executive director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, a nonprofit group focused on eliminating legal hurdles facing former inmates, said that other states have enacted more expansive protections for people who have been arrested but not convicted of crimes. One of those states is Colorado, which enacted a law in 2016 authorizing courts to automatically seal the records of people who have been acquitted at trial or whose charges have been dismissed.
Ms. Love said the California bill does not make clear how people will be able to know whether their records are sealed, or whether a district attorney has challenged the sealing.
“That said, the bill is an important step,” she said. “A good deal depends on how much data the California Department of Justice has, how accurate it is, and how efficient their procedures are.”
The New York Times