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Bills seek to assist ex-felons seeking jobs to avoid past from hindering them
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — Jeff Rutland was released from San Quentin State Prison nearly two years ago, ready to leave behind a 25-year criminal career.

But the 48-year-old former crack cocaine addict quickly realized that his past was not ready to leave him. Almost without fail, he would notice a chill descend on job interviews whenever he had to explain to potential employers why he hadn't filled out the section of his application that asked about felony convictions.

"It's very discouraging because a lot of these jobs I know I'm qualified for," said Rutland, who sought in vain to land a manufacturing job. "As soon as I check the box, the demeanor changes."

Prompted by stories like Rutland's, California lawmakers are considering three bills ahead of a June 1 deadline that would make it easier for ex-convicts to get jobs.

One in the Assembly would make it easier for former prisoners to get their criminal records expunged, while another would make California the latest state to remove the felony conviction question box from public-sector job applications. In the Senate, lawmakers will consider a bill that would make possessing drugs for personal use a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

State Sen. Mark Leno said California should follow the lead of 13 other states that classify possession for personal use as a misdemeanor. Leno said the experience in those states, which include Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wyoming, shows an increase in drug treatment and a decrease in drug use. The difference is that those states promote rehabilitation over incarceration.

Moreover, addicts avoid felony convictions that make it more difficult to get housing, an education and employment.

"Good luck getting a job that's above minimum wage, if you can get a job at all," said Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco.

He said a felony conviction is more than just a stigma.

"It is a real barrier to success in life," he said.

The maximum sentence would be reduced from three years to one year behind bars for possessing drugs for personal use. Leno's bill, SB1506, would not apply to possessing drugs for sale.

The shift would result in 2,000 fewer state inmates as California is reducing its prison population to comply with federal court orders, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. That's partly because misdemeanors cannot be counted as a "strike" for those facing much longer sentences for repeat offenses, Leno said.

Opponents say the switch would send more offenders to increasingly crowded local jails, while removing much of the incentive for addicts to get treatment.

"We're now taking a wholesale step on dangerous drugs and saying it's not as dangerous as it used to be," said Cory Salzillo, director of legislation for the California District Attorneys Association.

The association opposes all three bills, although Salzillo said it is not opposed to helping felons get jobs and reintegrate into society after their release.

Leno's bill is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, defense attorneys, drug treatment providers and advocates for changing the nation's drug policies.

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, is promoting a bill that would prohibit cities and counties from requesting criminal background information on initial job applications.

California adopted similar standards for state employees in 2010. It would join five other states with similar restrictions if AB1831 becomes law.

The bill would let those with a criminal history "compete fairly for employment without compromising safety and security," Dickinson said in a statement.

Local governments could still run background checks after they decide the applicant is initially qualified for the job and could request criminal history information immediately on applications for law enforcement jobs or those that require working with children, the elderly or disabled.

Associations representing prosecutors and police chiefs oppose the measure, saying it would waste time and money while delaying the inevitable by forcing local governments to initially consider ex-convicts who are unlikely to be hired.

The Assembly also will consider a bill by Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, that responds to the state's realignment law that took effect Oct. 1. Under realignment, felons convicted of nonserious, nonviolent and non-sexual offenses serve their sentences in county jail instead of state prison.

AB2263 would let judges expunge the criminal records of felons who are sentenced to county jail once the offenders complete their probation.

The district attorneys' association objects to making it easier for felons to clear their criminal records simply because they are now serving their time in local jails. It says the standards should be different because felonies, by definition, are more serious crimes and often reflect a more serious criminal history than do misdemeanors.

Rutland, who most recently completed a sentence for felony assault, has given up on finding the kind of job for which he feels most qualified. He considers himself lucky to have landed a part-time position at an urban agriculture program in the San Francisco Bay area.

He believes that for others like him, the ability to have a record wiped clean could mean the difference between being able to re-enter society and remaining on the margins.

"Anybody coming home, all we want is that one break," he said. "Sometimes you'd be surprised by what that one little break can be that will change the course of a life."