A new state law that lowers certain non-violent felonies to misdemeanors can help change the lives of tens of thousands of Californians – if they apply in time.
Approved by voters in 2014, Prop. 47 opens to door to employment, education and housing opportunities previously denied those with felony convictions. The law also allows for the early release of some inmates if they apply to have their felony reclassified. An estimated 40,000 people — convicted for such crimes as drug possession and thefts of amounts under $950 — could be impacted each year, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
“[Prop. 47] is changing lives. It’s opening doors for many people for either jobs or housing,” said Efraim Gonzalez, a caseworker for Centro Community Hispanic Association (CHA), who is assisting Long Beach residents with Prop. 47 applications.
Prop. 47 beneficiaries will also find applying to rent a home or for Section 8 housing easier.
“(When) people in the housing market do a regular background check, that criminal history won’t show up so they won’t be denied an application for housing,” Johnson said.
A New Way of Life and Centro CHA are conducting Prop. 47 workshops in Long Beach over the coming several months, but timing is key. Applicants only have until November 2017 to apply for relief.
“We’re trying to make an impact as soon as possible,” said Gonzalez. “Not a lot of people know about it, so that’s a challenge.”
VoiceWaves spoke with two Long Beach residents who have applied or plan to apply for Prop. 47 about what they hope to attain with a cleaner record and a fresh start.
David Shaver spent the last 17 years in prison. On Christmas 2014, a judge informed him that he was free to go home after he qualified to have his sentence reduced under Prop. 47.
“It feels great. I’m going to try to get my life back together,” Shaver, 53, said.
Shaver, now living in his sister’s Long Beach apartment, was sentenced under California’s harsh three strikes law. When he was 19, he committed two armed robberies, served six and a half years, and stayed out of trouble until 1997.
That year, Shaver wandered into a Kmart and stole an electric shaver and screwdriver worth $122. The security guard caught him.
“I don’t know why I did it. I didn’t need the money. I just made a mistake. I messed up,” Shaver said.
Shaver was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. “I was in prison for minor crimes…it was hard to accept that,” he said.
It costs $47,000 a year to house an inmate in prison, according to the CA Legislative Analyst’s Office. That means California spent about $799,000 to keep Shaver behind bars for 17 years, for a crime worth $122.
Shaver learned of Prop. 47 while in prison and applied to have his three felonies reduced with the help of an attorney.
Now that he is out, Shaver is looking for work, a challenge given he has been incarcerated for a large part of his adult life.
“I don’t have a history of working because I’ve been in prison a long time, so I’m going to try to work on that now,” Shaver said.
He will still have felonies on his record for his past robberies, but according to Susan Burton, executive director of A New Way of Life, only felonies from the past seven years appear on a background check, unless the check involves the Department of Justice. Shaver’s convictions are from more than 30 years ago.
Before prison, Shaver was a welder, and is now considering going back to school to hone his skills. Most of all, he is excited about “being free, you know? Just living the rest of my life on the outside of prison.”
When she was growing up in El Sereno, Melissa’s (not her real name) family was involved with gangs, which eventually led her to become a gang member.
“From there it just led me to not care about anything,” Melissa, who did not want to use her name because gang members could recognize her, said.
The Long Beach resident said she has three felonies on her record: drug sales, carrying explosives, and violating probation.
“Because I have a [felony] background, it’s been hard for me to get a job or do what I want to do,” Melissa, 25 said. Last month, she was hired to work at a Chinese restaurant, and was too ecstatic to even ask how much the job paid.
She feels the daily stigma of carrying felonies. “Everyone who knows about it just judges me. They don’t see the person I am now,” Melissa said, adding that she has changed her life for the sake of her six-year-old daughter.
She had been studying to become a registered nurse before she was arrested for selling marijuana and crystal meth in 2010. When she was sent to prison at the age of 20, it meant the end of her nursing career, as she was banned from working in clinics.
But Prop. 47 could give her another chance. Her lawyers have told her that she qualifies to have all of her felonies reduced to misdemeanors, clearing her record of all serious offenses.
That might mean Melissa could live in her own home again, after being denied housing by local agencies because of her record. Right now, she and her six-year-old daughter are living with her mother.
“(Prop. 47) is going to let me get the career I want… If I want to go back to nursing, I can go back to nursing. It makes a big difference,” she said.
For Proposition 47 relief in Long Beach, call the Long Beach Public Defender at 562-247-2500. Their office is located at 275 Magnolia Avenue, Suite 2195 Long Beach, CA, 90802.
A New Way of Life will be conducting Prop. 47 legal clinics in Long Beach the fourth Saturday of most months at First Lutheran Church, 905 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, CA 90813 (call 323-563-3575 to register). You can also contact Centro CHA at 562-570-4722 or visit their office at 1900 Atlantic Avenue, 2nd Floor Long Beach, CA 90806.