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Pennsylvania and Utah Expunge Criminal Cases to Help People Get Jobs, Find Housing

by Dale Chappell

Nearly 30 million criminal arrest and conviction records – those of anyone ever apprehended for a low-level crime in Pennsylvania – will automatically be expunged under a new law passed in June 2019 designed to help combat discrimination in employment, housing and education.

Under a change to the state’s “Clean Slate” law, cases eligible to be sealed include arrests at least 60 days old that did not result in convictions, convictions for nonviolent crimes committed more than a decade ago and recent misdemeanors that resulted in less than two years in prison.

Those cases will now be automatically expunged, meaning that the record – while still available to law enforcement agencies – will no longer be accessible by employers, landlords or schools that conduct background checks.

Previously, an individual with such a criminal record had to file a request to have it sealed. But as of June 2019, only a judge’s signature is required to verify that the case falls under one of the categories eligible for automatic expungement.

“Even though we don’t have caste and social class, we really do,” a Pennsylvania woman named Nicole told National Public Radio,explaining that while she had never been convicted of a crime, a string of arrests for low-level offenses had stunted her career dreams.

“Knowing that my background will be sealed ... it’s just like looking at a lens and it’s going to become clear,” she said.

“There’s no record too old or too minor to stop somebody from getting a job,” agreed Jamie Gullen, an attorney with Community Legal Services (CLS), a nonprofit that helped lawmakers draft the Clean Slate law.

Gullen said that two-thirds of her group’s clients need help due to the discrimination they face based on past arrests or convictions that are sometimes decades old.

“This [Clean Slate law] will help [them] find jobs and housing,” she added.

Arrests that did not result in convictions, like Nicole’s, plus convictions for summary offenses and most nonviolent misdemeanors – including drunk driving, shoplifting and prostitution – account for nearly 50 percent of Pennsylvania’s criminal cases, meaning that one-half of the state’s criminal records will be sealed under the new law. Gullen said it’s a necessary change because online “technology started making these records more and more widely available, the commercial background-checking industry really exploded.”

Sharon Dietrich, the litigation director at CLS, said the law marked not only the first day in U.S. history when criminal records have been automatically sealed, but also that “it is quite possible that in the first week more cases will be sealed by automation than have ever been sealed in the entire history of the United States.”

The bill’s main sponsor, state Senator Scott Wagner, led a bipartisan majority of the state’s GOP-controlled legislature to adopt the legislation, supported by groups on both ends of the political spectrum – from the Center for American Progress, founded by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, to Americans for Prosperity, an organization supported in part by conservative billionaire Charles Koch.

Together their efforts were “just awesome in terms of putting policy ahead of partisan politics,” said Jenna Moll, deputy director of Justice Action Network, adding that she hoped “to replicate [this] in every state.”

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said he plans to have all applicable criminal records expunged within the next year under the new law, which he also called the first of its kind in the nation.

California and North Carolina have considered similar legislation, but other states have shied away from it because they lack a central database – used by all state courts and law enforcement agencies, like Pennsylvania’s – to make automatic expungements easy.

In March 2019, the Utah legislature adopted its own “Clean Slate” bill that provides for automatic expungement of certain low-level criminal records, though felonies, DUIs and violent misdemeanors like domestic violence or sexual battery are excluded. Eligibility further requires that an individual remain crime-free for a certain period of time, including five years for a class C misdemeanor, such as public drinking or careless driving; six years for a class B misdemeanor, such as prostitution or solicitation; and seven years for drug possession, which is the only eligible class A misdemeanor.

The law does not change any prior requirements for expungement, but by automating the confusing and little-used process it will help clear the records of many more people. 

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Sources: governing.com, npr.org, slate.com, sltrib.com