In 2014, California’s Proposition 47 gave non-violent criminals a new lease on life, but a huge population faces a looming deadline to clean up their criminal records to more easily work and be productive.
While thousands used the law to leave prison, there are many more -- including a large Orange County population -- who have been free for years and could use it to have their old troubling criminal records eliminated.
Under the law, someone in prison on a non-violent, non-serious felony -- often drug offenses -- could seek to have it reduced to a misdemeanor. This would allow them to get out of prison and be on probation or another form of monitoring. They then could get the misdemeanor expunged from their record.
Initially, advocates estimated there were one million Californian’s -- in prison and free -- eligible for such record clean ups.
But there are an estimated 800,000 people statewide -- about 150,000 of whom were convicted in Orange County -- who have not yet started the process to eliminate their criminal records, records and advocates say.
And a clock is ticking for them to benefit.
The law requires that people with felonies that meet the criteria must petition the courts by November 2017 to have their conviction records wiped out, attorneys say.
This is a tremendous burden for the already heavily taxed county public defenders who provide the great bulk of legal services for indigent individuals, along with a makeshift system of events and clinics offering free legal assistance throughout Southern California.
“It is a gargantuan task,” said Will Matthews, a spokesman for Californians for Safety and Justice, the Oakland group that led the drive for Prop. 47.
Last month, a bill [AB 2765] was introduced in the state Legislature to eliminate the 2017 deadline; but that measure by Assemblywoman Shirley N. Weber [D-San Diego] must pass with two-thirds majority, and could meet resistance from prosecutors or law enforcement agencies who have fought the proposition.
No figures are available on how many of the nearly 200,000 people statewide who have filed to reclassify/expunge their records have successfully completed the process.
San Diego Sets Standard
In Orange County, Mark S. Brown, an assistant public defender, said it was an extremely busy time right after the proposition passed, as countless calls came from imprisoned inmates and other clients.
Like in other counties, public defenders here first assisted those incarcerated, then moved to help the population that was already free.
Orange County officials couldn't say specifically how many people are eligible to clean up their records but haven’t, but interviews and records indicate about 150,000 is a likely total.
This is based on a comparison to such convictions in San Diego County -- which Brown noted typically are about the same as Orange County -- and those who already have filed with the court to have their records cleaned.
But the two counties have diverged significantly in their approaches -- with San Diego way more proactive than Orange County and other areas in helping people clear their records.
As of last September, records from the Judicial Council of California in San Francisco show 24,500 people have sought to have their records cleaned of Orange County convictions.
In San Diego County, public defenders saw the Prop. 47 deadline as so grave they took the unmatched step of creating a system to initiate the legal process on behalf of their eligible clients for about the last 25 years -- whether they could reach them or not.
“Under American Bar Association ethical guidelines, we felt we had a duty to protect their legal options,” said Frank L. Birchak, a San Diego deputy public defender.
Within about two months of Prop. 47’s passage, Birchak said they had identified from court records about 182,000 eligible individuals who had been convicted in the county since about 1990.
Public defender staff then began filing about 2,000 petitions a week with the Superior Court on behalf of eligible offenders, who they attempted to contact when possible. They see this as allowing those eligible to continue the expungement process after the deadline.
“There were a lot of 80-hour weeks,” recalled Birchak.
They continued the mass filings until last July, for a total of nearly 48,000 petitions, he said. They can gear up and begin re-filing if the deadline isn’t dropped.
Judicial Council records show San Diego County led the state in petitions filed through last September. No other county is known to have followed San Diego’s filing course, said Francine Byrne, a manager for the judicial council.
After San Diego public defenders searched for clients, Birchak said, “It is amazing how many people who may be affected by Prop. 47 don’t know about it.”
Nonprofits Ramping Up Efforts
In Orange County, officials with the public defender's office said they are only initiating the record-cleaning process for clients who contact them.
Brown said a policy decision was made to only file petitions with client approval and after checking their financial qualifications. The public defender’s computer system doesn’t allow the identification of a group of all their Prop. 47 eligible clients, he added.
In addition to the public defenders, there are a handful of community groups working to inform and help individuals about Prop. 47 record cleaning.
The UC Irvine School of Law and the Legal Aid Society of Orange County operate a clinic to provide free legal assistance. In 2014, the clinic, which operates on the third Saturday of each month, aided 100 individuals, with 70 assisted in 2015, said William T. Tanner, the society's directing attorney.
Friday evening from 6 to 9 p.m., Project Kinship of Santa Ana will hold its first free clinic for Prop. 47 cases at its office at 1535 E. 17th St. Public defenders will also attend.
Last week, legal aid society attorneys for the first time set up a table near a county assistance vehicle at the downtown Santa Ana Civic Center to offer legal advice to homeless people who congregate there. Planning is underway for such assistance regularly on Thursdays with volunteer attorneys from Orange County Bar Association.
Throughout Southern California, there have been similar efforts.
Los Angeles reportedly has about 300,000 individuals eligible for Prop. 47 record changes, the largest caseload of any county, served by a few free clinics scattered across the region.
In conjunction with the UCLA School of Law in West Los Angeles, the New Way of Life Reentry Project runs clean slate clinics in Long Beach on the fourth Saturday of each month and South Los Angeles on the second Saturday.
C.T. Turney, a project senior staff attorney there, said they served 320 clients last year.
In Riverside, All of Us Or None hosts a free legal clinic on the second Friday of each month at Universalist Unitarians Church. Information on other free clinics can be found on the Californians For Safety and Justice website.
A Push to Move the Deadline
As Prop. 47 caseloads grew, there was a substantial impact regionally on both district attorney offices and public defenders.
In San Bernardino, Daniel M. Edber, a supervising public defender, said the county provided them with additional funds to hire added legal staff to deal with the crush.
In Orange County, Brown said the public defender’s office received no additional budget assistance.
With San Diego public defenders filing thousands of petitions and thus swamping the office of District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, she backed dropping the 2017 deadline.
In addition to Dumanis, Los Angeles County and Californians for Safety and Justice sponsored Weber's bill, said Marcus McKinney, the principal consultant for the assemblywoman.
“Why have three-year deadline?” said McKinney, noting
it made no sense to cut people off from improving their job and other opportunities.
The bill hasn’t yet been set for a committee hearing, said McKinney, who added they are hoping the powerful California District Attorneys Association in Sacramento will either be neutral or favor the bill.
A visit to one of the clinics that have emerged throughout Southern California reflects the acute need.
The San Diego Clean Slate Clinic had several dozen clients lined up outside an hour before it opened last Saturday.
In the first two years of operation, the San Diego clinic’s co-founder and director attorney, Keiara L. Auzenne, said they filed 682 cases.
Auzenne also is a member of the San Diego Re-Entry Roundtable, a group of community advocates and agency representatives seeking to facilitate justice system changes. For a short time, Orange County had such a group, but it folded; there is talk of recreating it.
“The re-entry roundtable serves as a watchdog,” said Auzenne. “Authorities know they will be held accountable.”
Successful expungement cases can be unforgettable, said Tanner, the Orange County Legal Aid Society’s directing attorney.
His first case was a woman with a conviction nearly 20 years ago for welfare fraud associated with a troubled marriage.
Divorced, a single-mother of two, she would work temporary jobs, succeed, but when an employer tried to hire her full time, the old case listed as a felony came up, killing the job offer.
But when Tanner dug into the records, he discovered the case had been improperly recorded as a felony, when in reality it was a misdemeanor, which was easily expunged.
“She worked all those years at temporary jobs raising her children alone; tragic,” said Tanner. “Now she has a full-time job at a bank doing fantastic.”
Rex Dalton can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.