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I have been working with the incarcerated, principally in California, for many years. I initially became involved with prison reform and just sentencing when a young friend of mine experienced a grievous mental breakdown during which he committed a very serious crime and was ultimately sentenced to a minimum in excess of two decades behind bars.

Through my correspondence with him, I met a number of other inmates who, over the years, were variously transferred to a number of different California prisons, such as Mule Creek, San Quentin, CSATF/Corcoran, High Desert. Through our interactions and written exchanges, I was able to edit a book, Juvenile Offenders: from Big Wheels to the Big House, which contains many of their autobiographical essays which delineate the life journey which led them to imprisonment and, in some cases, release into the free world.

It is for those who have been released that I am writing this column. The former director of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor and current State Senator, Maria Elena Durazo (District 24), introduced a two-year bill last year, SB 731. In brief, this legislation is intended to " largely expunge or seal criminal records for those who have completed their sentences--all in an effort to help those who are trying to re-enter society."

One thing I have gleaned over these many years is a number of common threads shared by the incarcerated. Generally, they come from dysfunctional homes in which they were victims of mental and/or physical abuse: rape, incest, beatings, beratings, humiliation, alienation, abandonment, efforts at suicide. They become, as a consequence, prime candidates for the school-to-prison pipeline. On the streets they often turn to gangs as they seek the family units they no longer experience at "home." But what too often transpires, as a result, are crimes committed at the direction of the gang leader/father figure which ultimately leads to prison.

Many who have genuinely reformed, evolved, and transformed themselves, and are ready for well-deserved and diligently earned second chances, encounter seemingly impermeable roadblocks to promising employment.

Taking all this into account and recognizing the vicious cycle in which these young people find themselves, laws have recently been passed in California, SB 260 and 261, which offer the opportunity for people, tried as adults while having committed crimes as juveniles, to apply for release after 12 years behind bars as long as all other requirements are met: guilty of less than the highest-level crimes, of a mental state that can be managed upon release, good behavior throughout incarceration, genuine contrition and remorse, appropriate preparation for re-entry.

Many of these people have acquired their GEDs, AAs, BAs, MAs, certifications in trades and other occupations (or a combination thereof). Sadly, however, upon release, many who have genuinely reformed, evolved, and transformed themselves, and are ready for well-deserved and diligently earned second chances, encounter seemingly impermeable roadblocks to promising employment.

I think of one gentleman who spent 36 years in prison and finally earned his release. He became employed immediately upon release so that he could support himself without reliance upon individuals and/or organizations. He wanted to become a meaningful stakeholder in his chosen community. It meant so much for him to be a recognized citizen in his new community, he registered to vote as soon as he was eligible. 

He worked at labor-intensive jobs and also learned how to drive commercial trucks. He now would like to drive trucks that carry Hazmat materials. In fact, he was all set to do this until the company which was prepared to hire him had to turn him down. He needed to get Hazmat certification but could not because of his criminal record, one that began when he committed his crime at the age of 16 (long before 260 and 261 went into effect).

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The foregoing provides a logical foundation and background for the reasoning behind SB 731. First and foremost, we must continuously remind ourselves that all people are human with certain unalienable rights and deserve to be treated humanely even if they are behind bars. People there do not lose their humanity. They are still human. We must clearly acknowledge that those who commit crimes must receive penalties and punishment in proportion to those crimes. At the same time, we must understand that the prison system should also promote the concept of redemption and that second chances will provide opportunities for the previously incarcerated to be able to be meaningful contributors to the communities where they eventually reside. When one has employment that earns fair, living wages, such a person (at the very least) will be paying taxes from which we all benefit instead of having taxes used to house them in prison. 

The consequence of better wages for all who seek employment means more people can be housed, fewer people will be burdens upon society or find themselves on the streets. Parents can live in neighborhoods with better schools and supervised recreational activities for their children who can achieve promising futures which don't lead to crime and violence, the crime rate being mitigated as a result of such efforts. Another point not frequently considered is that the gross domestic product is and will continue to be adversely affected by the road blocks that interfere with potentially excellent workers utilizing the purchasing power that would be garnered from the salaries they could earn from jobs they are qualified to hold.

These are achievable goals. There may never be full employment but offering viable ways for the formerly incarcerated to avoid recidivism and obtain meaningful and fulfilling employment are worthy goals that will lead to a reduction in the unemployed numbers.

The concepts behind Sen. Durazo's bill are not new. It has, however, taken this prominent and powerful woman (backed by her colleagues and other cohorts along with numerous organizations whose goals are to provide a safer, juster society that will treat its citizens with fairness and compassion, sensitivity, and altruism) to bring this issue to the fore in a way that can no longer be ignored. 

One such organization is Californians for Safety and Justice which promotes a program entitled Getting Back to Work: Revamping the Economy by Removing Past Records. To quote from its stated guiding principles,

"[E]stimates. . .show that at a minimum, California loses $20 billion from the state economy as a result of policies that disenfranchise potential workers with past conviction records. But this is just the tip of the iceberg--these statistics [from 2021] leave out many of the ways old records limit individuals' employment, and California's economic potential."

We cannot and must not be judged by our worst mistakes. Our history, unfortunately, shows us that we have veered from such goal. Even the Bible tells of Cities of Refuge wherein its inhabitants were provided second chances, a lesson we should still take to heart.

Supporting SB 731 is one step toward achieving that objective. Each of us can help by contacting our own California State Senators and Assemblymembers to prevail upon them to back (and even co-sponsor) such legislation. Let Sen. Durazo know that we approve of what she is hoping to accomplish through her selfless and courageous leadership.

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Sealing prison records to create a more progressive, fair, and compassionate justice system is certainly a step we must take. We can do this by helping our leaders get this SB 371 passed into law.

Rosemary Jenkins