People with old records deserve a chance to move forward

View Original Notice ? People with old records deserve a chance to move forward

Where I live, in South Central Los Angeles, people long to feel safe. In part, this is because California’s decades-long over-use of incarceration has been making our community more dangerous.

Research shows that jails and prisons are not effective at ending cycles of violence.

They also leave a record—usually for mistakes committed early in life—that permanently limits a person’s access to jobs, housing, and other essentials for participating in our society. As a result, millions of people in California—along with their families—are stuck in some level of post-conviction poverty and subject to the desperation that often goes with it.

Senate Bill 731, legislation introduced by Senator María Elena Durazo and approved by the Assembly, promises to end this dangerous legacy by automating the process for sunsetting old records after a person has paid their debt to society and is living crime free. It’s a long-overdue reform that would provide hope and opportunity for millions, strengthen the state’s economy, and make all Californians more secure. Gov. Gavin Newsom should soon have the opportunity to sign it into law, and he should.

This legislation is a big deal. Right now, eight million Californians — one in five state residents — are living with an old record. This includes approximately 2.5 million working-age people who are living with an old felony conviction—roughly one of every 10 working age people in our state.

Most of these individuals have fully completed their sentence and have lived crime free for years or even decades. The vast majority of people with old records were convicted of misdemeanors or lower-level felony offenses and never served any time in prison.

Yet California will maintain all of their conviction records until they are 100 years old.

I am one of those people.

Over 25 years ago, I was tried as an adult and sent to prison. A mistake I made at 16 has haunted me until this day—even though I’m not the same person I was then.

Today I run a program in the Watts community to help kids develop entrepreneurial and artistic skills by making t-shirts that they design and sell themselves. I also operate a store affiliated with The Reverence Project in Watts that distributes locally made fashion reflecting the character and culture of the community.

Yet I have been repeatedly turned down for jobs because of my old record. When I aspired to become a barber, for example, I learned I wouldn’t be able to cut hair in my garage legally. Because of a past conviction I’m barred from getting a license to do something as simple as cut hair.

Being reduced to a past conviction has thwarted my upward mobility. I’ve been blocked from job opportunities that offer gainful employment, something that is needed in order to live life, support my family, and raise my son. Although I’ve found some opportunities and have received help from local nonprofits that are intentional about hiring people with old records, in a year or two, after that nonprofit’s grant money runs out, it’s back to square one; on the street chasing your next opportunity and wondering how to make ends meet.

The drivers of crime are poverty and desperation. We can make policies that increase crime by creating desperation, or we can make policies that increase safety by creating opportunities and lifting barriers.

SB 731 would implement policies that create opportunity for safety and peace by recognizing that an individual who has served their time and been rehabilitated should be able to move forward with their life without being sabotaged by an old record.

And this process should be automated—because we’re currently holding people back based upon what they did in the past when we should be opening a path to the future based on what they have to offer.

SB 731 becoming law will be good for people living with old records. It will be good for our state’s economy, which benefits when folks are gainfully employed rather than living off public resources. And it will be good for safety—which for me and my neighbors is a top priority.

Phillip Lester, a resident of South Los Angeles, is the Southern California chapter coordinator for TimeDone, the nation’s largest network helping people living with old records.