California is clearing criminal records — including violent crimes — to offer second chances

It has been 13 years since Nick C. sat in an Alameda County jail at the age of 24, facing decades in prison and the prospect of never seeing his kids again.

He looks back on it as a turning point: Years in juvenile detention and a young adulthood spent dealing drugs culminated in a “bar fight gone sideways.” Charged with attempted murder, he pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon, according to court records. 

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In the following years, he took anger management classes, earned a GED and worked as a dishwasher after a higher-paying maintenance job offer fell through when his background check turned up with a violent felony, he said. Then an electricians’ union gave him an apprenticeship without caring about his record. Now he works nights, has his kids back and recently bought a house with his wife. 

The final step Nick wants to take is to clear his record, the 37-year-old said on a recent Saturday morning, standing in line inside a south Sacramento church with nearly 200 fellow Californians with felony convictions. 

He was waiting for a notary to scan his fingerprints, which would generate a record of his California arrests and convictions for a nonprofit attorney to review. He said he’s stayed out of trouble since the assault, which would likely make him eligible under a recent law to ask a judge to dismiss the case and seal it from public view. His record blocks him from certain job sites, such as government construction projects, he said, so he hopes an expungement would open more professional doors.

“It’s to show my kids that my past is my past, and that’s where it’s going to stay,” said Nick, who wanted to be identified only by his first name to avoid jeopardizing job opportunities if the expungement is successful.

That’s no longer the case: Under Senate Bill 731, which went into effect in mid-2023, Californians with most kinds of felony convictions, including violent crimes, can ask for their records to be cleared. Sex offenses are the primary exception. To be eligible, applicants must have fully served their sentences, including probation, and gone two years without being re-arrested.

Passed in 2022 mostly along party lines, the law came after years of efforts to reduce the burdens that a criminal record still places on Californians’ job and housing opportunities. It was among the broadest expungement laws in the nation, including about one million residents with felony convictions, said Californians for Safety and Justice, the advocacy group that sponsored the bill. 

The law goes even further, directing the state Department of Justice to automatically seal from public view non-serious, nonviolent and non-sexual felony convictions when the defendant has completed their sentence and not been convicted of another crime in four years. That provision was supposed to begin last year, but lawmakers agreed to delay it until this July.

In the meantime, those hoping to get their convictions cleared are turning to the courts, just as the public and some Democratic leaders have taken a tougher stance on crime. Applicants have since last year filed a trickle of expungement requests with the help of legal aid attorneys, public defenders and nonprofits such as the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which provides prison re-entry services and offered the free fingerprinting in Sacramento this month. 

“They served their time, and they’ve done their own internal work and diligence to come out the other side,” Elizabeth Tüzer, the coalition’s expungement legal project manager, said of her clients. “It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a job, or be able to survive or have housing.”

For these requests, judges have the ultimate say, and can consider evidence of rehabilitation as well as any opposition from prosecutors. 

It’s not clear how many of these felony expungements have been granted. The state Judicial Council isn’t specifically tracking it, and most of the superior courts in the state’s largest dozen counties could not immediately distinguish them from other cleared cases. Since mid-2023, there have been 26 felony expungements in Sacramento County, 72 in Kern County and 48 in Riverside County, according to court spokespersons. 

The Anti-Recidivism Coalition has helped clients file nearly 200 requests statewide, Tüzer said, with about half granted so far.

The expungements, which state law calls “records relief,” don’t erase the cases entirely. 

The records will still be kept by the state justice department, which will share them with other government agencies, police and prosecutors if an ex-offender is arrested again, or with the state Department of Education if the ex-offender applies for a school job. Under the law, expungements also don’t allow someone to own firearms again, or avoid disclosing a conviction if they run for public office or apply for a job with law enforcement.

But they do mean local courts are required to block cleared cases from public searches and from the background check companies commonly used by private-sector employers and landlords. 

Saun Hough, a manager at Californians for Safety and Justice, said the benefits extend beyond those with a job application on the line. Old criminal records hinder Californians from fully participating in society in a variety of ways, he said, from chaperoning their children’s field trips to holding positions in a homeowners’ association. 

“Peace of mind, that’s the biggest of all the new doors that are open,” he said. 

For Alexis Pacheco, a friend of Nick’s in San Francisco who told him he may be eligible, expungement provided psychological relief. 

Pacheco, 39, recently won a judge’s order to seal an old felony that she said stemmed from a fight with an ex-husband. The conviction hung over her head in subsequent child custody disputes, she said, and for years after her release from jail, she worked at a storage facility in a job a relative helped her get. Her career was stagnating, she said, but she was “scared to go for more, scared they’ll run a background check.” 

She now works at a nonprofit and attends college, hoping to one day enroll in law school. To ask for her record to be sealed, she said an attorney directed her to write a letter detailing how she’s turned her life around. A San Mateo County judge granted an expungement in December, according to a court order she shared with CalMatters.

If people don’t know your story you’re just this person on paper,” she said. “When I got the letter, I cried. It’s no longer, you’re just this person.”

When the automatic felony expungement begins in July, about 225,000 Californians will qualify, said Californians for Safety and Justice, with more becoming eligible in the future as more time passes after their convictions. 

Automatic expungement eliminates the need for defendants with lower-level convictions to find an attorney, pay filing fees or go before a judge. Criminal justice reform proponents have pushed for these “clean slate” bills across the country. They’ve cited a 2020 Harvard Law Review study that found few eligible ex-offenders apply for expungement, and argued it’s fairer to instead grant relief to everyone who qualifies.

California began automatically sealing old misdemeanors in 2022, in response to a prior law. In the first six months, state records show the Department of Justice directed county courts to shield 11 million cases from public view, helping six million defendants. The agency called it the “the largest record relief carried out over such a short time period in U.S. history.” 

“Automatic record relief is ultimately about equity,” Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement emailed by his office Wednesday. “Individuals who have served their debt to society deserve a second chance, and they should not have to hire an attorney to get that second chance.”

As a state Assemblymember in 2018, Bonta authored a law to automatically clear cannabis convictions. He also supported the automatic misdemeanor sealing law.

To carry it out, his department booted up a computer program that every month scans through every criminal record in the state to identify those that have become eligible to be expunged. Then it sends a list of the cases to be sealed each month to the county courts where the charges were brought. The department also does this for some arrest records. 

Starting in July, that program will begin to flag newly eligible felony convictions. 

Click here to read the full article in the CalMatters

How 600-plus California Inmates Got More Than 11,000 Years Cut Off Their Prison Sentences

Neko Wilson wasn’t present when Gary and Sandra DeBartolo were brutally killed in their Central Valley home in 2009. Still, Fresno County prosecutors alleged he was culpable for their murders because he had helped plan the botched robbery.

At the time, California law allowed for people to be charged with first-degree murder if they were involved in a felony that led to a killing, even if they hadn’t intended for anyone to be hurt and didn’t commit the violence themselves. For years, the felony murder law was used to lock up entire groups of offenders for the violent acts of one or two among them — often for decades, sometimes for life.

Wilson, who was 27 when he and five others were arrested in the DeBartolo murders, faced a similar fate.

“That was the hardest pill to swallow,” Wilson said. “A life sentence for something I didn’t do.”

Wilson, however, walked out of prison in October 2018 — the first of hundreds of state prisoners who have benefited from a pair of criminal justice reform measures that revised the way California punishes unwitting accomplices to killings.

According to a first-of-its-kind analysis by the Office of the State Public Defender, at least 602 people in California detention facilities had their prison sentences reduced between 2019 and 2022 as a result of the two laws. That erased an estimated 11,353 years from their combined terms and saved taxpayers between $94 million and $1.2 billion in prison costs.

“This is really tangible — not only real impact on the individuals who were incarcerated under this sentence, but also their families and the rest of California,” said Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who sponsored Senate Bill 1437 in the Legislature and worked to ensure inmates were aware of the change after it passed.

SB 1437, signed into law in 2018, and Senate Bill 775, signed into law in 2021, largely restricted the filing of felony murder and other manslaughter and attempted murder charges to people who actually commit or intend to commit a killing, or who are major participants in a related felony and acted with “reckless indifference to human life.”

Certain cases, including those involving the murder of a law enforcement officer, were exempted.

The bills applied retroactively and allowed people behind bars on convictions and plea deals reached under the old rules to be resentenced — usually for lesser crimes — under the new rules.

The bills set off substantial controversy. Advocates said they would save on prison costs, reduce the size of the state’s prison population and restore fairness to California law. Opponents said the laws would remove a critical deterrent to murder, overturn legitimate jury decisions, force prosecutors to relitigate long settled cases and release dangerous prisoners back into the public.

Both sides gave rough estimates for how many people might be released as a result of the changes and over how long of a period. The true numbers would depend on a host of factors, including individual district attorneys’ willingness to go along with inmates’ requests for resentencing or fight them in court.

Some prosecutors did fight, in part by arguing that the laws were unconstitutional. The state’s highest courts rejected that idea, allowing the laws to stand.

A major criticism of the state’s former felony murder law was that it was disproportionately applied to defendants of color. The state analysis, based on data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, found that 41% of the resentenced defendants were Black, and 39% were Latino — or, as the state broke them out, 20% Mexican and 19% Hispanic. About 12% were white.

The analysis found that 250 of the defendants, or 41.5%, were in Los Angeles County. Another 69, or 11.5%, were in Alameda County and 52, or 8.6%, were in Orange County.

There were 26 in San Diego County, 25 each in Sacramento and San Bernardino counties, 22 in Santa Clara County, 21 in Riverside County and 20 in San Francisco County. The rest were scattered across the state.

The analysis is almost certainly an undercount of people who were resentenced. Some prosecutors have simply cut deals to release detainees rather than go through the official process of resentencing and releasing them under the two laws, legal observers said.

Recidivism among those released was not part of the state’s analysis. However, the Office of the State Public Defender noted that individuals released after long prison terms, like many of those freed under the two laws, tend to reoffend “at a much lower rate than other populations.”

Robert Brown, an assistant district attorney in San Bernardino County, worked with other prosecutors in the state to fight the laws before and after they took effect, and believes they have since let dangerous offenders off the hook.

The laws make it relatively easy for people convicted of felony murder to petition for resentencing, without requiring them to prove they are eligible for such relief. Instead, the legal burden is on prosecutors to prove they are not eligible, Brown said.

That has meant a mountain of new casework for prosecutors — to prove resentencing isn’t deserved because a person had intent to kill or was a reckless, major participant in an underlying felony, Brown said. That work is often complicated or impossible in old cases where key evidence is gone or witnesses have died, or in cases where plea deals were struck and there are no trial transcripts, he said.

“It certainly left us with a less-than-ideal tool belt,” he said.

The new laws also leave families of murder victims “blindsided when they are suddenly told that this murder case from 30 years ago is suddenly coming back” and the people locked up for their loved ones’ murders may go free, Brown said.

“The victims really seem to be left out of consideration here,” he said.

Several inmates who have benefited from the law said they are doing well — and grateful to those who helped make it happen.

Patricia Ann Brown — known as Patty Ann Lamoureux when her well-known case was litigated — was arrested in Temecula in 2011 and charged with felony murder in the killing of Bradley Capen.

She was living at the time with her then-boyfriend, Ian Inserra. A friend named Kyle Miller was also staying at their home. Prosecutors allege that one night, Miller and Inserra went to Miller’s family home to rob Capen, who was Miller’s uncle, and that Miller fatally shot Capen.

Although Brown was not there, prosecutors charged her with murder along with the two men, alleging she had helped plan the robbery and gotten rid of the gun afterward. In 2013, a jury convicted her of felony murder and conspiracy to commit robbery, and sentenced her to life without the possibility of parole.

Capen’s family could not be reached for comment.

Brown says she was not part of planning the attack, and had only gotten rid of the gun because Inserra and Miller had hidden it in a tree outside their home, and she was worried Inserra’s young son would find it. When she heard the verdict in her case — guilty of murder — she said she went into shock.

“My ears were ringing and it was like slow motion, and my heart was beating so hard, and I could hardly breathe,” she said.

She eventually resigned herself to spending the rest of her life behind bars, she said. But one day someone slid a piece of paper under her cell door. On it was the language of SB 1437.

“I burst into tears, because I knew at that point that I was going to get to go home,” she said.

Not that it was easy. Prosecutors fought her release, and Brown’s case went to the California Supreme Court — which declined to take it. That left in place a lower appellate court decision that upheld the new law’s constitutionality and found she was eligible for resentencing, in part because the state had failed to establish that she had any intent for someone to be killed.

Brown’s victory helped clear the way for others convicted of felony murder to also go home.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Criminals on Both Sides of the Bars

Prisons are supposed to be secure places where offenders are held accountable and prepared to lead law-abiding lives when released. In fact, that’s right in the Bureau of Prisons’ Mission Statement, “to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.” However, that’s hard to do when some of those running prisons are criminals themselves. 

The Inspector General of the Department of Justice found that employees of the Bureau of Prisons have committed rape and murder, taken cash to smuggle drugs and weapons into prisons, and stole government property such as tires and tractors. In addition, the IG found that BOP employees had filed false reports, incited violence, lied, were stalkers, and took bribes. Since 2019 more than 100 federal prison workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for these crimes.

Those crimes were committed by the people that are supposed to be “correcting” the behavior of inmates. Good luck with that!

Last November, the Warden of the women’s prison at FCI Dublin in California was indicted for groping a female inmate, asking two inmates to strip naked for him, and taking and storing photographs of a naked inmate in her cell.

He is also accused of trying to deter one of his victims from reporting the abuse by telling her that he “was ‘close friends’ with the person that investigates allegations of misconduct by inmates, bragged that he “could not be fired.”

This year another BOP employee at FCI Dublin was arrested on charges he coerced two inmates into sexual activity. It appears that some randy foxes are guarding the henhouse.

I have a unique perspective on the crimes committed at the Dublin prison. I was inmate 06833-097 at the Dublin prison complex from March 1994 to February 1995. At that time, it was an all-male labor camp. While imprisoned there similar corruption happened regularly.

One day, I was exchanging my tools at the Tool Shed. Clay and Joe, the inmates assigned there, told me that the foreman of the landscape crew had come into the shed and ordered them to go and pick up cigarette butts in the maintenance yard behind the shed. This was odd because there were plenty of inmates assigned to sweep up the butts, and the shed would be left unsupervised while they were out in the yead.

However, Clay and Joe knew better than to question the foreman. After several minutes passed, they saw him put something in the back of his pickup and drive off. They returned to the tool room and noticed two empty outlines where brand-new Skilsaws had been hung just that morning. When Joe and Clay reported the missing saws to their supervisor, he listed it as an “inmate theft.”

Because I had been in government other inmates would tip me off about staff thefts. For instance, in the week before the prison would take inventory prior to the start of a new fiscal year, several inmates told me to keep my eyes and ears open. They predicted that word would spread through camp that the Supply Room door had been left open and the officer was nowhere to be seen. Sure enough, soon inmates were scurrying back and forth between the Supply Room and their lockers with their arms full of socks and underwear.

Later that afternoon a surprise shakedown of all the inmate lockers was called and all the extra items were confiscated. The officers returned the inventory to the Supply Room. The scam was that a couple of days later when taking inventory, it was “discovered” that there were shortages for many items carried on the books. The shortages were attributed to “inmate theft” thereby covering up all the clothes that the staff pilfered for their families the preceding year.

As for staff dalliances with the female inmates, I learned that prior to my arriving at the camp several officers had been frog marched out the prison gate for having sex with female prisoners in return for smuggling in drugs and cigarettes.

The women’s prison was adjacent to the Garage where I was assigned for much my time at Dublin. We were able to visit through the fence with the women inmates. While this is secondhand info, it was confirmed by the women inside the fence as well as male inmates who were in the camp when this occurred. The BOP brushed the scandal under the carpet. Rather than charging the officers for their crimes the offending officers were merely reassigned to other prisons.

The crimes I have described were committed by “bad apples” among prison officials. I admire many of the who have dedicated their lives to keeping prisons safe while helping prisoners become better people. The work of these heroes is undercut when the prison system doesn’t cull these bad actors from their ranks.

The Roman poet Juvenal wrote, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who will guard the guardians? If prisons are to send inmates home better than when they went in the ethics of the corrections profession must be restored. The acting Director of the Bureau of Prisons just announced he is stepping down. However, real change requires more than a change at the top. It means a fundamental change in the BOP the culture that has tolerated such criminals among their ranks. The Bureau of Prisons needs a top-to-bottom housecleaning. And  it needs it stat.

Pat Nolan is the Founder of the Nolan Center for Justice at the American Conservative Union