Proposition 47 has been blamed for a lot since it passed last fall: a rise in crime, a surge in homelessness, throngs of emboldened drug users and thieves who aren’t worried anymore about going to jail.
But on Sunday, at an event that drew more than 4,000 people to Exposition Park, I saw what the new law ought to get credit for: allowing law-abiding folks to clean up ancient criminal records that can keep them on society’s margins, blocked from good jobs, locked out of decent housing and barred from student loans.
Prop. 47, approved by 60% of California voters, reduced drug possession and nonviolent thefts from felonies to misdemeanors, which led to the release of more than 3,700 state prison inmates.
The law was heralded as a way to reduce prison overcrowding and offer addicts a path to recovery, instead of the revolving door of punishment.
Just as important, though it got less attention, was a provision allowing people who’ve already served prison terms to have felonies on their records knocked down to misdemeanors, which could then be expunged and erased from public view.
That can be a tedious and complicated process. So more than 100 lawyers volunteered to spend Sunday helping ex-offenders move forward in their lives.
“There are 4,800 restrictions in California law for someone with a felony record,” said Mike Smith of Californians for Safety and Justice, which co-sponsored the daylong legal fair with the California Endowment. “Most of those are lifetime bans and most are employment bans.”
Those bans feel like a straitjacket to Yerodin Prince, who showed up with his three young sons.
When he was in his 20s, Prince served time for two nonviolent felonies in Texas. “I’ve never bothered another soul since then,” he said.
After his release, he moved to California and found well-paying work as a union pipe fitter. Now Prince, 40, and his wife want to launch a real estate business. But his criminal record puts the license he needs off limits.
“I want to progress, I want to take care of my family,” he said. “To have to take menial jobs and try to support a family … that’s why you hear some men say they might as well go back to selling drugs.”
The wait was long and the tents were crowded. But Anita B. Sylvan didn’t mind. She drove in from Lancaster and joined a line that already stretched down the block two hours before the gates would open. “I just want this off my back,” she said.
On her back is a 40-year-old pack of drug-related crimes.
Sylvan, 60, is a praise worship leader and Sunday school teacher at her church. But her felony record is keeping her from getting custody of her grandson, whose mother is serving a prison term.
“I’ll do whatever they need me to do,” Sylvan said, fishing through her tote bag for the legal paperwork she needed.
She was being guided through the process by Sherri Godfrey, a student at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law, who volunteers to help attorneys handle the flood of record-clearing requests.
The people she meets “have completely changed their lives,” Godfrey said. Many have overcome addiction or learned to manage the mental issues that paved their way to prison. “Some are years or decades past the time when they were involved in foolish crimes while hanging out.”
Edward Sigler, 45, fits both groups. He ended his last prison term 15 years ago. But his record has kept him stuck in neutral.
He’d trained behind bars as an electrician and found a few jobs when he got out. But they always ended after the background check. “They’d see my record and it was, ‘I have to let you go,’” he said.
It’s hard to explain away 21 years in prison and 26 parole violations. “I was a drug addict and a thief,” Sigler admits. Most of the men he met in prison had those same afflictions.
Getting treatment for his addiction to heroin is what turned his life around.
Sigler credits his parole agent for that: “He drove me directly from prison to a drug program. He cared more for me than I cared for myself.”
Now there is no stick to force addicts into treatment; no parole agents or threat of prison terms. And there aren’t enough treatment slots for addicts who seek help on their own.
Prop. 47 is required to used money saved on incarceration to fund drug programs. But that money won’t begin to flow for another year.
In the meantime, addicts may not be in prison, but many will still be shackled to drugs.
Sigler sees plenty to celebrate; cleaning up his record will give him a shot at the job he wants.
I see in his story both the promise and the peril of our grand experiment in criminal justice reform.