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As president and founder of Pillars of the Community, I have been working for years with individuals and families in San Diego negatively impacted by law enforcement. This experience has convinced me that our criminal legal system, as it currently operates, could not be more backwards. Our response to crime seems designed to prevent people from rejoining society after their release and gives them little choice but to recidivate. California lawmakers have an opportunity to begin correcting this by passing Senate Bill 731, legislation that would seal some past conviction records so people living with old records have a genuine second chance in life.
That some people will make mistakes is a simple, enduring fact. But once those mistakes are made, right now our “solution” is to incarcerate them, where they are surrounded by violence, where racism is encouraged, and where every societal norm is flipped on its head. Then, without addressing the trauma of that experience, we release them into society.
Allowing old records to follow people indefinitely is another thing we do to set people up for failure. Currently, no matter how hard someone may work to turn their life around, to follow the rules of society and to support their families and communities, their past contact with law enforcement will continue to haunt them. They will be asked about it when filling out common forms and applications. It will turn up on routine background checks. In some cases, their fingerprints will be run through vast databases as they apply for jobs or try to volunteer at their children’s school. As a result, again and again throughout their life they will be rejected, discriminated against, and excluded from jobs and housing to volunteering at their child’s school. SB 731 will make thousands of Californians eligible to expunge their records and avoid being branded with past mistakes for the rest of their life.
A perfect example of this is a good friend of mine who now volunteers to help run a reentry program for the formerly incarcerated. Although Manny has had a clean record since being released 9 years ago, and has been an outstanding member of the community, he was denied a salaried union position because of his record. After spending $10,000 in lawyer fees to be considered for the job, someone else had already been hired. What message are we sending to the thousands of people reentering society when we literally prevent them from working based on outdated and counterproductive laws? Manny’s story is only one out of millions.
The United States currently incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. California, once a leader in the failed “tough on crime” wave that swept the country, is finally revisiting some of those draconian policies. Even so, we still spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to punish a person, and then we turn around and prevent them from earning an income after being released. And we do this far more often than you think: more than 7 million Californians are living with an old criminal record of some kind, and one in 10 working-age Californians — nearly 2.5 million individuals — has a felony conviction. By limiting the employment opportunities for people living with an old conviction record, California lost more than $20 billion in gross domestic product in 2018 alone. In San Diego, there are an estimated 175,215 working age people with felony records. That’s 8.3 percent of the working age population in San Diego County. On average, more than 21,000 people in San Diego County every year lose out on a job because of an old felony record. This costs San Diego County more than $1.3 billion in GDP every year. If we want to have an inclusive society in which everyone is able to participate, we must allow everyone to be included in that society.
As a professor at San Diego City College, I work in a rare space where a past record need not be a burden. The small portion of people with past convictions who have access to higher education often find that their experience with law enforcement and incarceration is valued for the insight it provides. So instead of feeling denigrated or ostracized, they feel seen and valued as part of the academic community. Many have thrived as a result. I can think of at least 6 former students who have now transferred to UC Berkley, UC Santa Barbara, SDSU and UCLA. Many of them had been dismissed as criminals by the state. They are now succeeding in graduate school, serving on local commissions and studying to become lawyers.
The biggest impediment to successful reentry after someone completes a sentence or period of probation is the loss of hope. Barriers placed in the way of people who have served their time are counterproductive. Every individual who gets reincarcerated is a person who has lost the hope that there is a place for them in the larger society. If society isn’t willing to accept their reentry, how are they supposed to become contributing members?
If we are serious about providing second chances to people who have made mistakes, and about building safer communities overall, we need to change the criminal legal system so that it cultivates personal success and social reintegration — not recidivism. Passing S.B. 731 so that more people are able to leave their past mistakes behind and benefit from the good choices they are making today is an important step toward realizing that change.
Khalid Alexander is a professor at San Diego City College and founder of Pillars of the Community, an organization dedicated to helping those affected by the criminal justice system and to celebrating the historic, rich and diverse culture of Southeast San Diego.