Everyone deserves a second chance, but many people don’t get one due to past criminal convictions that hold them back from opportunities in which they would thrive. Many with past convictions may qualify to have those convictions expunged but don’t know about their eligibility or have difficulty navigating the complex process without a lawyer.

That is why legal aid organizations are vital to delivering justice for the formerly incarcerated. The free legal help they provide helps Californians get the second chance they deserve by removing barriers to better paying jobs, housing, and other forms of stability.

There is no shortage of people with criminal records in California. Law enforcement in our state make over one million adult arrests. Despite having paid their debt to society, past criminal convictions can severely hinder an individual’s opportunities for employment, housing, licensing, loans, and other important resources. Men with a criminal conviction are half as likely to receive a callback from an employer than those without a past conviction. The outlook is even worse for applicants of color; Black men with a record are twice as likely as white men to be denied a callback if they have a record.

Expunging convictions assists people to become self-supporting and reduces the chance they will return to the criminal justice system. In one case, expungement services provided by East Bay Community Law Center in Alameda County demonstrated that by nearly 150 percent.

Many legal aid organizations help Californians to realize these benefits.

Take William, a longtime resident of Orange County who was convicted of selling small amounts of marijuana. The convictions were more than 11 years old, but still, William’s record prevented him from getting stable employment to provide income for his medical expenses. Community Legal Aid SoCal, a legal aid organization serving Orange and Southeast Los Angeles Counties, helped William have the convictions dismissed. Now, William can move forward with the burdens of his record lightened.

Why don’t more people get their records expunged? The reason is primarily one of awareness. People aren’t usually aware that they are eligible to have their convictions reduced or expunged. Most do not seek help until after experiencing several years of suppressed earnings. A recent study found that less than seven percent of people who were eligible obtained relief within five years of becoming eligible.

Even for those who know they are eligible, navigating the complex court process is difficult and designed for those with legal advocates by their side, which most people facing expungement do not have. While possible to do without an attorney, it can be trying to get information about one’s case, find and fill out the correct forms, file with the appropriate court, and represent oneself if a hearing is set.

California legislators have recognized these problems. Last year, the legislature enacted AB 1793, establishing a system for automatic relief for convictions that qualify under the 2016 voter-enacted marijuana legalization initiative. Just this month, Governor Newsom signed AB 1076, which will establish a process for automatically expunging some qualified individuals’ records.

Despite lawmaker action, people will still have to wait years for the changes to potentially affect them. Fortunately, legal aid organizations can help individuals now. Organizations like Community Legal Aid SoCal, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County assist low-income southern Californians with getting copies of their records, preparing the correct forms, filing, and even representation in court. They will review an individual’s entire conviction history and aid with everything available, including expungements, reductions from felonies to misdemeanors, arrest and juvenile record sealings, and certificates of rehabilitation.

These services are free, made so by continued federal, state, local and private dollars.

While the legislature continues to discuss ways to provide relief to those with convictions, individuals need not wait. They may be eligible now. The sooner they get assistance, the sooner they can remove barriers to employment, housing, and other necessities. Services like those offered at legal aid organizations can assist people through the process.

If you or someone you know could benefit from cleaning up a criminal record, contact or have them contact your local legal aid organization as soon as possible. Too many people have been held back from realizing their full potential for too long.

Douglas B. Davidson, Board President, Community Legal Aid SoCal

Davidson, a resident of Irvine, began practicing law in 1973 after graduating from UC Hastings Law School and retired at the end of 2013.  During his career, he practiced with several firms and corporations focusing primarily on corporate and real estate business matters and on business litigation.  Mr. Davidson is an experienced mediator and ADR provider.  He is on the Temporary Judge Panel for the Orange County Superior Court.  In 2015, Mr. Davidson began volunteering with Community Legal Aid SoCal (CLA SoCal), a nonprofit organization committed to helping its neighbors fight injustice by providing compassionate, high quality legal aid and advocating for stronger communities.  As a volunteer, Mr. Davidson served as a mentor to the LEAP program for new attorneys and acted as lead counsel in several cases.  He was appointed to the Board of Directors of CLA SoCal in 2016 and is currently serving as board President.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

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