Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the nation’s most sweeping law to permanently seal old conviction records.
It was the latest in a series of recent legislative and budgetary reforms that is reorienting California’s approach to safety and justice toward what works: prevention and healing over punishment and incarceration.
The measure, Senate Bill 731, won’t erase criminal records but seals them, removing a barrier so Californians with previous arrests or convictions can pursue jobs, housing and educational opportunities.
The law syncs with $300 million in investments in the 2022-2023 state budget for crime prevention and other programs that offer pathways for people to successfully and safely return to their communities.
It also comes on the heels of other budgetary investments increasing and expanding compensation and services for survivors of crime in their time of greatest need and deepest crisis.
These landmark advances aren’t victories solely for people involved in and harmed by the justice system. They are a critical buttress for the state as a whole.
According to a recent statewide poll of likely voters, jobs, the economy and inflation are the most pressing issues facing the state.
Investments in justice reform, far from running on a parallel track, are very much interconnected with these top-of-mind concerns.
Let’s do the math: Under SB 731, over a million Californians with past conviction records — roughly the entire population of San Jose — will be able to turn a new page in their lives when opportunities previously barred to them open up.
The state stands to gain an estimated $20 billion in yearly gross domestic product we currently lose because an entire swath of our population — disproportionately and unjustly people of color — has been disenfranchised for past convictions.
Meanwhile, reentry programs and drug and mental health treatment services will receive a massive infusion from the state budget, along with funding for a flexible cash assistance program and emergency transitional housing for people returning home after serving time — all aimed at helping individuals with records and their families achieve stability and security.
Now let’s turn to crime victims. About one in three Californians have been a victim of a crime in the last ten years, yet fewer than one in five report receiving medical or financial assistance or counseling.
These statewide findings track with a new national survey of crime survivors released earlier this fall confirming most victims don’t receive help in the aftermath of crime.
Hundreds of thousands of crime victims in California are burdened each year with medical bills, lost wages, and untreated injury or trauma that can affect their ability to work and support their families.
The majority of crime victims live paycheck to paycheck; a single unforeseen expense can spiral them into debt and desperation.
I speak from experience.
I’ve lost three members of my family to gun violence. Each loss of life is a wound that, left unhealed, can tear through generations.
Under new state policy, crime victims will get the life raft they need to stay afloat, and the resources to heal in the long-term.
They’ll be able to tap a $50 million, first-of-its-kind-in-the-nation program that provides direct, timely cash assistance as well as higher caps on reimbursements for things like burial and funeral costs.
For the first time, victims on parole and probation will have access to the state compensation fund.
Taken together, these investments and policy reforms represent the beginning of a bold new direction in California’s safety and justice strategy, one that communities most hard-hit by crime have been demanding for decades.
That’s why the majority of victims surveyed say they prefer, by a nearly two to one margin, that the justice system invest more in crime prevention, rehabilitation and crisis assistance over incarceration, which hasn’t made us safer.
More than anything, crime survivors don’t want others to go through what they’ve had to endure.
California, along with the rest of the country, is facing a financial forecast dimmed by covid setbacks and the threat of inflation.
Amid this uncertainty, the state’s commitment to healing and rehabilitation is a ray of light, backed by dollars and a vision for helping people recover from harm and free themselves from cycles of crime.
These are the key elements for the kind of comeback stories we can all get behind.
Tinisch Hollins is executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, the state’s largest criminal justice reform organization.