California bill would seal 2 million criminal records

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SACRAMENTO — California will consider legislation that would wipe the low-level criminal records of about 2 million people going back decades, part of a lawmaker's second attempt to remove barriers to finding work or housing.

The measure is part of a provision that was removed from a bill approved last year that would expunge records of certain arrests and crimes starting in 2021.

Its author, Assemblyman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, proposed the new bill on Monday with the backing of district attorneys from San Francisco and San Joaquin County.

Officials said records like being arrested for domestic violence or impaired driving where charges weren't filed could be automatically cleared.

In California, arrest and conviction records of lower-level felonies and misdemeanors eligible for probation can be expunged. Sex offenders and any offender who served time in prison are ineligible. The bill would not change which records are eligible to be expunged.

The proposal would automatically clear records dating back to 1973. It's uncertain if the proposal will succeed this year. A month after Ting introduced his bill last year in February, it was amended in the Assembly to ensure the law would not apply retroactively.

Individuals with arrest records and convictions can currently apply to the courts to seal qualifying records, but critics say the process can cost thousands of dollars in attorneys fees. The proposal automates that process, removing the need to petition judges.

“It's going to cost you a very good attorney and about $10,000 and at least a year of your time,” said Tori Salazar, San Joaquin County district attorney. As a prosecutor, Salazar acknowledged that years ago she would have laughed at the idea that easing the erasure of criminal records would help victims.

“But I stand here today saying this is one of the best victim prevention tools that we have,” she said, because clearing records can help an individual find employment instead of turning to crime.

The California District Attorneys Association didn't respond to a request weighing in on the proposal.

Last year's bill requires the state attorney general beginning on Jan. 1, 2021 to scan monthly for qualifying records that can be cleared.

Ting said on Monday that the attorney general's office will propose funds in this year's upcoming budget for the development of software to scan for records. Running the program would cost the state pennies to search for an individual's record, he said.

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