Mar 05, 2019

With Pennsylvania as the Example, More States Should Develop Clean-Slate Policies

Post by Freedom Partners

After spending a significant amount of time in prison for a nonviolent felony, one Los Angeles man spent years trying to find employment. But, like so many other Americans, his criminal record was a huge barrier.

In the Los Angeles area, however, there are expungement clinics — services that help people go through the process of getting their criminal records sealed. As NPR reported, the man always thought they were a scam, so never tried to use its service.

“He had no idea he could not only get it [the felony] expunged but reduced to a misdemeanor,” said Los Angeles County Deputy Public Defender Lara Kislinger, who was helping the man with the paperwork, according to NPR. “He just had no idea. And he was so grateful. And he’s been having so much trouble finding a job. And we want people to be able to re-enter society and be productive members of society. And this was a case where it was so obvious it was holding up jobs — and life. And it’s tragic.”

This tragedy is happening to more than just one man in California.

As many as one in three Americans have some type of criminal record. And some 87 percent of American employers conduct background checks. That means, too often, qualified applicants are immediately rejected because of past actions — even though they have already paid their debt to society. In fact, the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people is five-times the national average.

So, while it’s great that clinics in some cities, such as Los Angeles, provide the formerly incarcerated with the opportunity to get their criminal records sealed, it’s not enough to help people get back on their feet.

In terms of giving deserving people a clean slate after they reenter society, Pennsylvania is leading the way.

Clean slates in the commonwealth

Last June, Gov. Tom Wolf signed House Bill 1419, known as the “Clean Slate” bill, which received near-unanimous support. Trumpeted as “the first of its kind in the nation,” this legislation provides more sweeping reform than seen in other states. It provides for the automatic sealing of some criminal records and giving more people the chance to petition to have them sealed.

Specifically, the law:

  • Allows Pennsylvanians to petition the courts for their records to be sealed, if he or she has been free from conviction for 10 years for an offense that resulted in a year or more in prison and has paid all court-ordered financial debts.
  • Automatically seals records for second or third-degree misdemeanor offenses that included a less than two-year prison sentence, if a person has been free from convictions for 10 years.
  • Automatically seals criminal history records related to charges that resulted in non-convictions.
  • Does not allow sealing of records in more serious crimes.

“People who have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to minor misdemeanors many years ago deserve a second chance,” said State Rep. Sheryl Delozier at the bill’s signing. “They have shown that they have reformed their lives, and this barrier to employment and housing needs to be removed.”

Going forward

With Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate bill as the example, other states should now pursue policies that enable second chances. A bipartisan coalition, called Clean Slate, is hoping to help send that message.

Freedom Partners Chairman Mark Holden and David Plouffe, campaign manager for President Barack Obama in 2008 and current head of policy and advocacy for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are two of Clean Slate’s supporters.

“When people … pay their debt to society, they [shouldn’t] keep paying it for the rest of their life,” Holden said last year when he and Plouffe were interviewed on MSNBC.

“Over the next couple of years, you’re going to see a lot of policies change and a lot of good technology work happening to make it easier for people to clear their records,” added Plouffe.