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What we know about California's new criminal records reform law

California passed a law that will automatically seal most criminal records for those who complete their sentences and don’t commit another crime for four years.
Credit: ABC10

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Californians will soon be able to clear their criminal records thanks to what is arguably the most expansive new criminal records reform law in the country.

The law is expected to go into effect in July 2023. 

Supporters of the law say this will be a game changer to help people find employment and housing. Something that is not so easy when you have a criminal background. 

Those against it say more needs to be added to the law to ensure the ex-felons and parolees are properly transitioning back into society.

One classroom in Sacramento is full of students who would benefit from the new law.

"COVID hit and then I was looking for work and kind of limited my options," said Trent Seay, a member of Northern California Construction Training, which teaches those like Seay how to get into the construction industry. "And then I just fell back into old bad habits and stuff like that, and then ended up getting a little bit of trouble."

There's also Brendon Byfield, a member of Northern California Construction Training, who has three kids. When his daughter was one, a nine-year-old boy started bullying her and ended up tripping her.

“Basically stood up for her and I threw something towards him to get his attention and it hit him," said Byfield. "So I was looking at charges for that, but I had a lot of character letters that helped me out, because I'm not a violent person never been in trouble at all. I had no record until this incident happened."

He threw a cough medicine bottle and turned himself in.

“I reacted, and I shouldn't have," he said. "I should have been able to control the situation, but it had been repetitive.”

Bryan Sanchez, a member of Northern California Construction Training, has robbed more homes than he can count. 

“I just got brought up to like, 'Let's go here,'" said Sanchez. "Let's go there and I'm 14 years old not knowing anything just drinking smoking beyond like and catching my first case at 14 like robbing houses and stuff.”

From breaking the law to learning how to build birdhouses and park benches, everyone part of Northern California Construction Training (NCCT) is working to better their lives and others

“Our logo is a bent nail," said Jeff Armstrong, marketing director for NCCT. "And the reason is because all of us are bent nails, and it's our job to take that bent nail, straighten it out and get it ready for going to work."

Armstrong said the construction industry offers what so many others don’t, forgiveness. 

“We deal with people who've made mistakes in their lives who need a second chance, third chance, fourth chance. We're OK with that," he said. "We're here to help you turn your life around. The construction industry is very forgiving. For people who've got who made some mistakes in their lives, have maybe a little checkered background, construction industry will welcome them.”

A record can mean a hard time finding employment or housing. 

"It really did make it hard," said Seay. "Because if I talk to somebody, I can talk good, but on paper, I don't look like, I'm not that desirable of a person to hire, and I don't blame them... Some of the mistakes I made in my past turn aren't the greatest."

But soon, that won’t be an issue anymore for Seay.

California passed a law that will automatically seal most criminal records for those who complete their sentences and don’t commit another crime for four years.

"I think it's going to just not just lift people's spirits, but it makes them feel better about themselves and give them a lot more confidence and open more doors for him," said Armstrong. "So it's a big win, big win for everybody."

Arrests or records that don’t lead to convictions will also be sealed. 

"That's huge because that'll eliminate the biggest barrier, all of us that have been in the judicial system to jump over," said Seay. "Because that is absolutely the hardest part about it, is that preconceived notion that you're still bad. And it's the easiest thing people can deny you for. It hurts, especially if you're doing everything to do right, and you get judged by your past.”

There are exceptions to the law. People convicted of serious and violent felonies will not have their records cleared. Neither will sex offenders. 

If anyone is applying to work in a school, law enforcement or public office, their record will still be visible. 

“We were opposed to the bill on several issues," said Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association. "Most importantly for us was the violent crimes, and the sex registrants having their records cleared. We didn't feel that that was appropriate. We feel that the vast majority of Californians would probably agree with us, but we did work with the author. She was very amenable to some of our amendments.”

Even though those changes were made, Marvel says he still has concerns. 

For one, the list of violent felonies in California is not long. 

“Some of the more serious violent criminals have like domestic violence and deadly weapon convictions," he said. "Unfortunately, (those) are still in the bill, so that's why we remained opposed to it.”

Marvel wants to make it clear he believes in second chances but has his concerns.

“I think that's what really makes our country great is the opportunity that you do have a second chance," he said. "But we need to make sure that the proper procedures and protocols are in place, that they are getting the rehabilitation that they need. You know, four years, I don't think is a long enough period to determine whether somebody has committed these types of heinous crimes have been properly rehabilitated.”

Armstrong understands.

“I see their concerns," he said. "I know, and I certainly don't want to downplay it, but if you look it through their eyes, you know, once you're given this opportunity, you're not really you're not gonna mess it up."

He says his program has an 85% graduation rate. He calls it the recidivism ender. 

“The folks that we deal with in our class, a lot of them had made mistakes and, you know, regret those mistakes," he said. "And you get an opportunity like this, where you've got a job, a good paying job, benefits, you know, and you feel that respect in yourself, you feel the respect that others have given you, you don't want to give that up.”

Meanwhile, Marvel does believe that this new law, which goes into effect in July, will feed into the narrative that California is soft on crime. He said California has been on this trend of decriminalizing crime, and he said it’s often the victims who are forgotten about. 

According to state Senator María Elena Durazo, the senator who introduced the bill, the law could allow millions of Californians to “reach their full employment and economic potential.”

As for whether California is the first to adopt such a law, ABC10 learned some states already have some sort of automatic record-clearing system in place, but experts say this is arguably the most expansive, applying to most ex-felons. 

There are exceptions to the law, those convicted of serious violent felonies won’t have their records automatically sealed, but the law does allow people with serious violent felonies to petition to have their records sealed. 

Watch: Gov. Newsom says California leads county in education, some disagree

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