“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” — Bryan Stevenson
Yesterday, Gov. Brown signed AB 2765, a bill that gives people more time to change their criminal records under Prop. 47. This is big news here at Code for America for a few reasons. For one, we see this as yet another illustration of the gap between passing a law and implementing it, or at least getting anything near the outcome the law intended. The Affordable Care Act had the highly visible healthcare.gov, which ultimately did the job quite well but first made clear to the whole nation how vulnerable the law was to implementation risk. In the case of Prop. 47, California voters agreed it makes no sense to allow certain past non-violent felonies to trap people in a cycle of persistent poverty and unemployment, but because the process to legally remove or reduce those felonies is so complex and burdensome, the law hasn’t had the effect voters intended. Estimates for Los Angeles county are that only 7% of eligible people have even started the process.
The new bill means that everyone working to honor voters’ intentions has five more years, which is good, because there are millions of people who can benefit from this law. Our team at Code for America is among those working on this; Clear My Record is a simple, clear way to start the process without going into a legal aid or public defenders office in person and waiting in line. Our team also supports our users through next steps of the process by text message and documents the common barriers so we can work with stakeholders to remove them. We have a long way to go to help the number of people we’d like and to help government staff and officials practice simplifying and streamlining process, but we’re grateful today for the chance to keep going.
I recently heard one of my heroes, Bryan Stevenson, speak at a benefit for the amazing Ella Baker Center in Oakland, CA, where I live. Bryan’s work goes far beyond the non-violent, often drug related felonies that Prop. 47 is intended to address, but he’s a moving speaker about the power of forgiveness and mercy broadly. He was speaking of slavery, our nation’s crime against humanity, when he riffed on the quote he’s known for at the top of this post, adding “our nation is also more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” That spoke to me at the deepest level. We must forgive people who make mistakes and allow them to move on; we must also show mercy for the systems and institutions that make mistakes and allow them to try again. Here’s to a second chance for the system and the people it serves.