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As we all look forward to our holiday breaks and 2013 draws to a close, many of our clients face a challenging month ahead. Winter weather is intemperate, courts are closed, and case managers take their well-earned family time. For people returning from incarceration this can be the hardest time of year to overcome barriers to reentry. Yet, a number of new laws could aid people reentering in California to make a fresh start in 2014.

I participated in a webinar hosted by the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) last week, which discussed the upcoming implementation of laws that will reduce the challenges of reentry. Two bills passed this year will help people with criminal histories clean up their records in 2014: Assembly Bill 651 and Senate Bill 530.

Having a criminal history can result in crippling and indefinite barriers to gaining employment, housing, and accessing a range of social services. In California, there are few available remedies that allow you to clean up” although never erase your record. These remedies largely depend on what type of sentence a person received. A person who serves a prison sentence has many fewer remedies than a person kept locally.

AB 651 (Bradford): Effective January 1, 2014.

Prior to AB 109 criminal justice realignment, low-level felony offenses such as drug and property crimes could result in a prison sentence, thereby excluding the person from the possibility of a dismissal later. Now these offenses must be dealt with locally, potentially through a jail sentence. However, the existing dismissal laws do not cover this new category of people.

Under AB 651, people sentenced to jail under Realignment would be eligible for dismissal of their conviction under Penal Code § 1203.41. The person must not be currently facing charges, serving a sentence, or be under supervision for any offense. If they received a straight jail term they become eligible for relief two years after the completion of their sentence. For a split sentence, they become eligible after one year. The dismissal may be granted by a judge in the interests of justice, and applies retroactively; anyone who has received an 1170(h) sentence since October 1, 2011 may be eligible.

SB 530 (Wright): In effect.

For people who have convictions that resulted in a prison sentence, dismissals are not available. However, they may qualify for a certificate of rehabilitation. Under previous law, there was a mandatory waiting period of up to 10 years, depending on the offense, before a person could apply for this remedy. Under SB 530, a court can now grant a certificate of rehabilitation before the waiting period is over, if the court believes it is in the interests of justice.

While these remedies are imperfect, and the legislative changes described are small, they can have a significant impact on people’s lives. Access to housing and gainful employment is an important aspect of reentry and often determines the outcome. Successful reentry means safer and healthier communities for all.

If you need reentry legal assistance for help with challenges to accessing employment or housing, visit EBCLC’s interactive map showing county-by-county service providers to assist you.