How a new law is helping poor Californians escape the crimes of their youth

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A new California law is set to transform the lives of low-income young black and Latino adults who committed crimes when they were minors, advocates say.


The law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday, will eliminate fees to have juvenile records sealed for those under the age of 26. Once SB 504 goes into effect January 1, 2016 the $150 fee to petition the court to seal records will be waived.

“The fee can be a huge barrier, but now with the fee waived [young people] can apply and be on the same footing as those who do have the money to seal their records,” said Theresa Zhen, a lawyer at A New Way of Life Reentry Project, a civil legal aid organization in Los Angeles.


Youth advocates say SB 504 is a major victory for juvenile justice reform because it will open up more meaningful opportunities for young people who have already served their time and who have turned their lives around. Sealing criminal records can open up meaningful opportunities for young people including access to better jobs, public and private universities, and housing opportunities.

“[SB 504] will be incredibly impactful for low income youth who are struggling day to day to build a stable foundation and are looking for permanent employment or a college degree,” said Zhen.

California allows adults to obtain a judicial order to seal records with misdemeanors or low-level felonies if the crimes were committed when they were under the age of 18.


Young people color make up the majority of juvenile misdemeanor and felony arrests in California. Of the 36,289 juvenile felony arrests reported in 2012, 23% were of African Americans, 20% were of whites, and 52% were of Latinos. Of the 67,817 reported misdemeanor arrests, 15% were of African Americans, 24% were of whites, and 54% were of Latinos.

Until yesterday, Armando Tlaseca, 19, wasn’t sure if he’d one day be able to vote. He had his first run-in with police officers at the age of 13 when he brandished a knife at school. He said he’s also faced petty charges since then.


"Most people may think [SB 504] is not that serious, but to the community that it affects it's really important," said Tlaseca.

“Young people will have another chance to make things right, make things better so they don't fall into the same trap all over again,” said Tlaseca.


Tlaseca said he can’t wait to register to vote in next year’s election. The Mexican-American teen said he feels like he has an added responsibility to vote ever since he heard Donald Trump make negative comments about Mexican immigrants.

"SB 504 will help reduce recidivism among juvenile youth by removing the fee to seal their records and thereby helping them get jobs. It's a major victory for our youth." Senator Ricardo Lara, who introduced the bill, told Fusion in an email.


“Ultimately, this bill gives youth an opportunity to become responsible, law abiding citizens, which is the ultimate goal of our corrections and rehabilitation system–it gives them an opportunity for a fresh start.” Lara said.

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