Essay: A second chance

Sacramento should use Measure U money to clear criminal records

By Nia MooreWeathers

During the Measure U campaign to increase the sales tax and in the debates that followed, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and other city leaders promised that they would use the proceeds to support “inclusive economic development.”

These new funds are meant to benefit all Sacramentans and all parts of the city, particularly those who have been excluded in the past. Among those who are most excluded from our economy are people with criminal records, particularly those with felonies.

They face a series of personal, financial, social and educational barriers as they pursue life after incarceration. They can find it very difficult to find employment and can be blocked from access to affordable housing and education. These barriers also impact their families and children. The era of mass incarceration sent thousands of people to prison for minor offenses and drove thousands of families into poverty.

Fortunately, many people with prior convictions can have their lives renewed by having their records cleared or reduced. Through expungement, they can petition the courts to have convictions reduced or cleared. With the passage of Proposition 64, marijuana-related felonies can be changed to misdemeanors.

According to research conducted by UC Berkeley professors and published in the Columbia Law Review, the economic benefits of expungement for the individual and larger community are very significant. On average, individuals who have cleared their records experience a 33% increase in earnings and higher employment rates.

Nia MooreWeathers is a community organizer with Youth Forward, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that advocates for youth and families.

The process of petitioning the courts, however, can be time consuming, expensive and can require legal assistance. Often, people with a prior conviction may not be aware that they can get relief. And there is little public or private funding to do outreach and to provide legal assistance.

Over the last two years we have made some good progress. Through a coalition of community-based organizations, the Sacramento County District Attorney, the Public Defender’s Office, Code for America and City Councilman Jay Schenirer, we have been able to identify about 6,000 Sacramentans who can benefit from a records change for a prior marijuana conviction. The district attorney has made a formal request to the courts to begin the process of changing the records of these individuals.

But much remains to be done. We estimate that there are 100,000 Sacramentans who could benefit from expungement support from the public defender and local legal nonprofits.

City leaders were correct in taking on the challenge of growing an inclusive economy. It’s clear that the gap between the haves and have-nots in Sacramento is widening quickly. Without investments in an expungement process, those with prior convictions will continue to remain on the margins as our city grows and prospers.

We urge the Sacramento City Council to invest a portion of Measure U funding to build a more robust infrastructure of attorneys and outreach workers to provide expungement services—and to help thousands of Sacramentans turn their lives around.

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