January 31, 2020
The Honorable Steve Cohen
House of Representatives
2104 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Congressman Cohen:
I am writing as the Chair of the Criminal Law Section of the California Lawyers Association to express our support for H.R. 121, the Fresh Start Act of 2019.
The Criminal Law Section consists of nearly 2,000 criminal law practitioners in California. We provide continuing legal education to attorneys and judges, as well as criminal justice policy advice to the California Legislature and Judicial Council of California upon request. Our Executive Committee is comprised of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges from across the state of California, with centuries of combined legal experience.
We are particularly well-positioned to comment on the federal expungement process outlined in H.R. 121 because California has been at the vanguard of creating safe, efficient mechanisms for ex-offenders to have their convictions expunged. We have seen the benefits of expungement and sealing first-hand and are proud of the bipartisan, national movement that has seen 40 other states adopt some form of sealing or expungement. We believe the time has come to introduce expungement to the federal criminal justice system.*
The collateral consequences of a criminal conviction are many, and they can adversely affect a formerly-incarcerated or convicted person’s ability to get a job, find housing, obtain higher education, or get the financing or licensing needed to start a business. Not only are these limitations often unjust, but the barriers to employment and housing, in particular, increase recidivism rates and can actually make us less safe.
In recognition of this, California has created safe, efficient mechanisms by which people who have served their sentence and pose no threat to the public can have their convictions expunged. Traditionally, this requires an individual to petition the sentencing court, establish that he or she was convicted of a qualifying offense and has not suffered a subsequent conviction, and show that the interests of justice weigh in favor of expungement. More recently, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 1076, which creates an automatic expungement system for certain qualifying low-level offenses (excluding registered sex offenders and those with pending criminal charges), so that an individual’s record can be expunged more efficiently.
Given California’s successful experience providing for the expungement of criminal records of qualifying individuals, we support H.R. 121’s creation of an expungement process in the federal criminal justice system. H.R. 121 allows nonviolent, first-time offenders to petition the sentencing court to have their conviction expunged. Individuals must have fulfilled all aspects of their sentence and must not have suffered any other state or federal conviction before or after expungement. The conviction may still be used in relation to firearms licensing and future criminal investigations.
We believe that H.R. 121 is a smart, safe, and overdue introduction of expungement to the federal system, and we encourage Congress to continue its criminal justice reform work by passing H.R. 121.
We appreciate your consideration of our comments.
Leif M. Dautch
Chair, Criminal Law Section Executive Committee
California Lawyers Association
*We are aware that H.R. 121 is one of many pending federal bills that address expungement in one form or another. We have not reviewed or analyzed all of these other bills, and at this point have not taken a position on any of these other bills.