On September 23, the California legislature sent AB 1076 to California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has until October 13 to sign or veto this potentially transformative legislation. If enacted, AB 1076 would make California the third state (after Pennsylvania (2018) and Utah (2019)) to authorize “clean slate” record relief, a direction to authorities to seal certain arrest and conviction records automatically. (Illinois, New York, and California have enacted automatic relief for certain marijuana convictions, and several states have automatic relief for non-convictions.) AB 1076 creates a parallel eligibility scheme that overlaps but is not exactly coincident with the petition-based system, as well as a new procedure for automatic relief. The specific provisions are described generally below, and more fully after the break.
AB 1076 would not modify eligibility for relief under California’s existing scheme of judicial remedies for people with criminal records, via sealing as well as dismissal and set-aside. Rather, effective January 1, 2021, it would create a new process obviating the requirement of an individually-filed petition or motion in most cases. If this bill is signed into law, California would break new ground in becoming the first state to extend automatic “clean slate” relief to felony convictions (other than for marijuana possession).
A less-noted but significant feature of AB 1076 is its expansion of the effect of relief for conviction records: it provides for non-disclosure of records of convictions that have been dismissed or set aside, whether automatically or by petition, and makes this provision applicable both to court records (effective February 1, 2021) and to records in the state repository (effective January 1, 2021), except in certain specified circumstances where disclosure is mandated by law. As it is, and notwithstanding the widespread use of the term “expungement” to describe its general relief scheme for convictions, California has no law authorizing limits on public access to most conviction records, whether held by the court or by the state repository. This would change in 2021, if this law is enacted. (Most non-conviction records are now eligible for sealing by petition under California law.) Note that, like most state repositories, California’s repository permits disclosure only to government agencies and specified private entities, so that the new limits apply within the class of otherwise authorized repository users.
The sponsors of AB 1076 emphasize that making relief automatic without the need for individual action will significantly reduce “barriers to employment and housing opportunities for millions of Californians.” They point to the key findings of J.J. Prescott and Sonja Starr’s 2019 study of record-sealing in Michigan: 1) people who had their conviction records sealed tended to have improved employment outcomes and lower recidivism rates than the general population; but 2) only a small percentage (6.5%) of those individuals eligible for set-aside and sealing actually applied, likely because of the complexity and burdens of filing a petition for relief with the court. While no comparable study has been done for California, experience with that state’s marijuana-sealing law suggests that the low “take-up” rate is similar to the one Prescott and Starr found in Michigan.
If California’s new law is enacted, beginning in 2021 the state will automatically grant relief for many arrests not resulting in conviction, for infraction and misdemeanor convictions, and for some less serious felony convictions. For eligible non-convictions—misdemeanor and some felony arrests—sealing will become automatic. (However, a significant set of felony arrests not leading to conviction are excluded, as discussed below, although most of these dispositions remain eligible for petition-based relief.) For eligible convictions, dismissal and set-aside will be automatic provided that a number of additional eligibility requirements are satisfied, including that a person must not be required to register as a sex offender, or be currently subject to prosecution, supervision, or incarceration for any offense. Prosecutors and probation officers may object to automatic conviction relief in individual cases on “based on a showing that granting such relief would pose a substantial threat to the public safety,” and such an objection may be tested in a court hearing.
A major shortcoming of AB 1076 — in contrast to the “clean slate” laws enacted in Pennsylvania and Utah—is that its automatic relief is prospective only. That is, relief is automatic only for arrests and convictions occurring after the law’s effective date. Those with arrests and convictions occurring before 2021 would still have to apply to the court for relief. Though the original bill had applied retroactively, the Assembly amended the bill to exclude arrests and convictions occurring before January 1, 1973, and then the Senate further amended it to exclude those occurring before January 1, 2021. Presumably these changes were based on financial and logistical considerations. The annual cost for the California Department of Justice (DOJ) and courts to carry out the final bill is estimated to total between about $2 and $5 million each year. Moreover, the bill’s effective date, January 1, 2021, is specifically subject to an appropriation in the annual budget, and the State’s Department of Justice has indicated it “would need the implementation date to be delayed to July 1, 2023 for proper implementation.” Despite challenges in implementation, we hope that, as the new automated system is developed, it will be feasible to extend relief to records predating 2021.
Of course, as noted, the provisions providing for non-disclosure of conviction records would apply to all cases dismissed or set-aside, without regard to when or by what process this relief was granted.
We will now describe in detail California’s clean slate legislation, which would add two new sections to the Penal Code, 851.93 and 1203.425, dealing with arrests and convictions, respectively, and amend the section of the Penal Code that deals with state records systems, 11105.