Vacating criminal convictions would be easier for some people under New Hope Act

Carolina Landa had difficulty finding a place to live after she served a four-year prison sentence. Legislation proposed in Olympia would help eliminate some barriers for people leaving prison.
Carolina Landa had difficulty finding a place to live after she served a four-year prison sentence. Legislation proposed in Olympia would help eliminate some barriers for people leaving prison. shauna.sowersby@thenewstribune.com

When Carolina Landa was released from prison after completing an almost four-year sentence, she attempted to relocate to Olympia in order to find a better life for her and her young son.

Landa applied for housing at 10 different places over a six-month period before she got the break she needed from a local landlord. She explained her situation to him, and, although he was skeptical at first, he agreed to give her a chance. Landa, 37, and her son Zachariah have been living there since 2015.

“He was one of those people that goes off of the feeling he gets from a person and he said, ‘You know what, I’m going to give you a second chance because I believe in second chances,’” said Landa.

Landa’s struggle isn’t uncommon. Many people who exit the criminal justice system struggle to find housing and employment. According to the Washington Statewide Reentry Council, 8 to 10 percent of those exiting prison release directly into homelessness.

Her experience is the reason why she testified on behalf of HB 1041 on Jan. 24. The bill is called The New Hope Act and was unanimously passed out of the House Public Safety Committee on Feb. 7.

Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, is one of the bill’s primary sponsors and said The New Hope Act would do three things.

First, it would streamline the process for getting a certificate of discharge, he said. A certificate of discharge restores all civil rights and must be provided by the sentencing court once a person completes the terms of their sentence, including financial terms.

Second, it would align misdemeanor conviction-vacation rules with felony rules.

Vacating a conviction means the offense would no longer appear in the defendant’s criminal history, which would make it easier for those people to apply for things like housing, jobs, and professional licensing.

“Currently, you can vacate unlimited felonies but only one misdemeanor, which is insane,” said Hansen.

Finally, it would make some of the most commonly charged felonies in Washington eligible for vacation if someone has stayed out of the criminal justice system for a certain amount of time, depending on the type of offense.

These three things all add up to a bigger picture, Hansen said.

“We want people who have truly turned their lives around to have the chance to go before a judge and explain why their conviction shouldn’t continue to hold them back from jobs, housing opportunities or volunteering at their kids schools,” said Hansen. “We want people to have some hope that they can make better lives for themselves.”

The bill is the result of over a year’s worth of bipartisan work between Hansen and Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw. Irwin is also a Seattle police officer.

“It’s not every day you see a Republican with a law enforcement background and a Democrat join in on a criminal justice bill, but here we are,” Hansen said.

The two sponsors agreed on just about everything for the bill, although there were some areas that required more work than others, such as determining which categories of offenses would be eligible for vacation, explained Hansen. Under current law, there are serious offenses such as hit-and-run or intimidation of a judge that are eligible for vacation.

Yet, “offenses that are charged hundreds of times in Washington state, like some of these assault and robbery charges are not eligible for vacation, and we just didn’t think it made sense,” said Hansen.

Irwin said that as a police officer he has been on scene for many arrests but that he doesn’t believe that people are inherently bad, just that sometimes they make mistakes. He has a slightly different perspective on the overall purpose of the bill than his co-sponsor.

“This is about giving people who have been justice-involved and have made a mistake a reason not to make another one,” he said.

Dan Satterberg is King County Prosecutor and co-chair of the Statewide Reentry Council. Satterberg told committee members that HB 1041 was the No. 1 recommendation from the reentry council for this year’s Legislature.

“We know that collateral consequences last for a lifetime, even after someone has served their debt to society,” said Satterberg.

Collateral consequences are restrictions that limit or prevent people from obtaining housing, employment, education and other basic needs even after they have left the criminal justice system, explained Satterberg.

Satterberg said the legislation would be an important tool for people who are motivated and want to move on with their lives.

Hansen noted that the vacation process isn’t automatic. It’s a discretionary process that involves petitioners making their case before a judge once they have completed stringent requirements.

Hansen and Irwin attempted to get a similar bill passed last year, but Hansen said that they introduced it too late in the session. Additionally, he said, there were many misconceptions about the bill.

“I think we’ve done all we can to make this law,” said Hansen. “There’s no reason this shouldn’t become law, but this isn’t easy and we’re certainly not taking anything for granted.”

Landa said that being able to vacate her conviction would give her hope that she will be able to provide financial support for her son, who has autism.

Thanks to the second chance from her landlord, she was able to provide a more stable living situation for her son. She soon landed a job and once settled, she began school at The Evergreen State College in Olympia.

After graduation in a few months, she will enter a master’s program and intends on using her experience to continue advocating for others who struggle to re-enter society after incarceration. She is eager for The New Hope Act to pass.

“I believe that it will give hope and incentive to stay the course and stay on track and keep striving for those goals that may seem not possible but in reality are possible,” said Landa.