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How California Is Giving People with Criminal Records a Second Chance

A 2014 vote opened the door for ex-felons to clear their names in a state with a legacy of harsh crime laws. Despite a spike in some offenses since, California is poised to push ahead with criminal-justice reform.

Rebecca McCray

A California jail inmate in 2013. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

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One morning in late April, Jose Duncan biked 12 miles as fast as he could through his hometown of Stockton, California, to learn more about a nearly two-year-old law.

"There was this little piece of paper on the wall at the mental-health clinic where I volunteered talking about some Prop 47 thing," Duncan, who is 34, told VICE. "I had never heard of it."

Though he was unfamiliar with Proposition 47, which passed in November 2014, the information on the flyer about a chance to wipe his felony record clean was more than enough to pique Duncan's interest. With five felony charges and four misdemeanors, his record had long stood in the way of his ability to access public housing and find work. All of Duncan's charges were nonviolent, he said, involving things like drug possession and petty theft. Duncan, who has been clean for two years, struggled with meth addiction for more than a decade starting in his late teens.

"I was homeless for ten years," he told me. "A lot of my charges were for stealing food and having drugs on me. After being on drugs for so many years, I just never pictured a future for myself."

Now Duncan is among the thousands of Californians who have reaped the benefits of Prop. 47, a ballot initiative that reduced penalties for some nonviolent crimes—including simple drug possession and theft under $950—from felonies to misdemeanors. In the face of claims that the law is directly responsible for rising crime rates across the state, Prop. 47 is under fire. But rather than turning their backs on criminal-justice reform, state lawmakers have passed an amendment to extend the window of time in which former felons can apply to have their sentences reduced. Governor Jerry Brown's office declined to comment on whether he will sign the bill, but its easy passage suggests a state with a legacy of being harsh on criminals of all stripes is determined to change course.

Though some states have reclassified certain felonies in the past, Prop. 47 was the first time such changes became available retroactively at such a broad scale. The law both changed the way future crimes are classified and gave people like Duncan a chance to wipe decades-old felonies away. It was a big deal in a state that made national headlines in the 90s for its three-strikes law, among other tough-on-crime policies. But in order to get the original law past some of its critics, authors agreed to limit the period of time in which those with felony records could petition for re-sentencing. Under the current incarnation of the law, that window will close in November 2017, and thousands could miss their chance to be free of troubled pasts.

The amendment on Brown's desk would extend the window to 2022.

"We already have other statutes that don't have time limits," David Greenberg, the chief deputy district attorney of San Diego County, told VICE. "Why are we putting a time limit on this?"

The answer, according to Greenberg, is "politics." He helped draft the amendment, which was ultimately authored by Shirley Weber, an Assembly member. Yet in testament to the state's evolving attitude toward crime, despite his support for extending the deadline, Greenberg was actually a strong opponent of Prop. 47 from day one—and remains one.

"It took away a lot of options for us," Greenberg, who argues that prosecutors already used their discretion to reduce certain felonies to misdemeanors, told me.

But when San Diego County Public Defenders office told the DA it would have to file 150 to 250,000 petitions before the November deadline, Greenberg said, he knew the burden on the court and his office would be untenable. In Los Angeles County, which is the largest in the state, the number of petitions would be at least twice that, Greenberg added.

"The vast majority of people have no idea their felonies could be reduced," he told me. "You would think with all this publicity that those folks who are cleaning their life up and are eligible would be reaching out, but that's just not the reality."

That's where record-change fairs and "reclassification clinics" come in. Organized by advocates and volunteer attorneys, events like the one on the flyer that caught Duncan's eye have become a vital way to reach Californians who have never heard of Proposition 47.

"The hurdle is really just getting the word out," said Lenore Anderson, coauthor of Prop. 47 and executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit that has hosted record change fairs. "Hundreds of thousands of Californians have [eligible] felony record convictions, but a lot of folks are infrequent voters or may not be aware of the law change."

Duncan, who has proselytized the value of Prop. 47 to anyone who will listen since discovering it, told me that "everyone he talks to has never heard about it," affirming the work ahead for organizations like Anderson's. Attendance at the fairs has varied, but advocates like her point to events like one in Los Angeles this June, where more than 5,000 people arrived, she said, far exceeding the capacity that volunteers had expected.

"It started at 11 in the morning, and when we showed up at seven to set up, there were 20 people in line with lawn chairs," Anderson added. "It's unbelievable to see how motivated people are about getting a second chance."

While people like Duncan are rebuilding their lives, critics of the new regime maintain the law has opened the floodgates for opportunistic criminals. While the state's prison and jail populations have declined since the law's passage, and the number of felony arrests has dropped 28.5 percent last year, a surge in property crime has law-and-order types worried.

In spite of Greenberg's fervent support for the extension of the window for people to petition for re-sentencing, he directly credits Proposition 47 with the crime spike.

"The crooks know how to avoid felonies now and take advantage of that," he said. "I don't think the voters really knew what they were getting. I did not and still don't believe [Prop. 47] was necessary."

As the debate over the crime rate's rise continues, Duncan and others who've been touched by the law will go on spreading the word. Rochelle Solombrino, an office manager at the San Pedro–based drug-treatment clinic she graduated from after her release from prison in 2009, is another believer. When the clinic received funding through a county contract that came with the requirement that no one on staff could have a felony conviction, Solombrino feared she would lose her job and the stability that came with it. But after applying for her two felonies to be reduced to misdemeanors, she was cleared—and kept her lifeline.

"When I got my first felony I thought, Who will hire me? Who will invest in me? I'm a drug addict and a felon," Solombrino said. "Prop. 47 completely changed my life."

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