Senator Wiener’s Fresh Start Act, to Remove Outstanding Restitution as a Barrier to Expungement, Passes Senate Public Safety
SACRAMENTO - Today, Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco)’s Senate Bill 1106, the Fresh Start Act, passed the Senate Public Safety Committee by a vote of 4-1. It will now be heard by the full Senate. SB 1106 helps people clear their criminal records by ensuring outstanding restitution and restitution fines are not a barrier to expungement. Currently, people across California are frequently denied record sealing and expungement because they are poor and cannot afford to pay outstanding restitution and restitution fines. Restitution debt is often the only thing holding someone back from clearing their record and finding a job and housing. This exacerbates the cycle of poverty and criminalization of Black and brown communities, who are disproportionately impacted by the criminal legal system.
“A person’s poverty should not block them from having their record cleared,” said Senator Wiener. “We’re forcing formerly incarcerated people into a cycle of debt that helps no one. If we want people to actually pay off their restitution debt, they need to be able to access housing and employment. SB 1106 will help people get a fresh start.”
Two types of restitution payments are frequently imposed on anyone convicted of a crime. The first is a restitution fine, which is a fixed amount charged to anyone with a conviction regardless of the crime and its impact. Restitution fines can run in the thousands and even more than $10,000. The second is direct restitution, by which a court can order someone to compensate a victim for the harm caused to the victim.
When setting these amounts, courts are not required to take into account a person’s ability to pay that restitution. This means that victims of crime, who are awarded restitution, overwhelmingly receive either nothing or a small percentage of the restitution because a defendant lacks the resources to actually pay it.
Current law allows courts to deny a request for expungement of a conviction — even if the individual is otherwise eligible for expungement — if they have any outstanding unpaid restitution. A court can deny expungement on this basis even if the defendant is living in poverty.
This kind of barrier to reentry does not increase the likelihood that someone will pay off their restitution. In fact, blocking someone from clearing their record makes it even less likely that they’ll ever be in a position to pay restitution. A 2014 study by Stanford University and the San Jose State University Record Clearance Project found that the estimated benefits of expungement outweigh costs by about $5,800, per person, in one year – nearly $6,500 in today’s dollars.
Under SB 1106, people who have served their time would be able to clear their criminal records despite owing restitution, if they otherwise meet the criteria for that relief. SB 1106 does *not* cancel a person’s restitution debt. Rather, the legislation allows a person to clear their record and move forward in life despite being too poor to pay restitution.
The bill is sponsored by a multi-regional coalition focused on modifying the court fee system and ending wealth extraction through the criminal legal system, which disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities, inflicting life-long monetary subjugation on them. The coalition is made up of legal advocates, formerly incarcerated people, policy experts, and movement building organizations led by impacted people.