Lawmakers, community leaders, business advocates and even sports figures agree that thriving communities are at their best when all people who live in them are able to seek meaningful employment and obtain safe housing. It is a value that finds widespread support from all corners of the community and sides of the political spectrum.
But something threatens to get in the way of that for about 29.5 percent of all Americans: a criminal record. Nearly a third of all Americans carry some form of a criminal record, and that record can follow them long after a prison or jail sentence has been served for even a minor offense, making employers hesitant to employ them, or landlords wary of leasing them apartments.
This was the problem Pennsylvania state Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) witnessed in his own community every day.
Harris and a bipartisan group of Pennsylvania legislators set out to expand their state’s expungement laws. In a political era marked by sharp partisan division, criminal justice reform — including expansion to expungement laws — is finding supporters on both side of the aisle. Great improvements are being made that are helping the lives of countless thousands of people whose criminal records have prevented them from landing good jobs or securing safe housing.
And that’s exactly what happened in Pennsylvania in a two-step process. Pennsylvania first passed a law that expanded the state’s extremely restrictive expungement process in 2017. Then, the following year, it made expungement much more accessible by automating it for people who had low-level offenses on their record.
In 2017, the state passed an expansion law that made it possible for people who had been convicted of low-level nonviolent misdemeanors, such as drug possession or larceny, to have their record sealed if they have remained free of arrest or prosecution for seven to 10 years. Sealing means that a criminal record is hidden from the public view of people like employers or landlords, but is still visible to law enforcement officials, as opposed to expungement, which means the record is removed entirely.
It’s important to note that in conversation, people may refer to both sealing and setting aside as forms of expungement. However, in strict legal terms, there are differences between expungement and sealing.
While the expansion was a great leap forward for Pennsylvania, it was still catching up to other states in terms of access to expungement. For instance, Michigan also has laws on the books. But unlike Pennsylvania, Michigan law provides for the setting aside, or sealing, some felonies as well as misdemeanors.
Harris was determined to make Pennsylvania’s expungement system one of the best in the nation. He noted that the law still relied on a person to take the initiative to file paperwork and pay a fee to have their record sealed. The paperwork could sometimes require an attorney’s help to complete — as shown by the free expungement clinics set up across Philadelphia to help people apply after the new law went into effect. And the fee could present another hurdle to people, especially if they are struggling to find a good job because of a criminal record.
That’s why Harris and another coalition of bipartisan lawmakers introduced “Clean Slate” legislation last year. The Clean Slate legislation took expungement to its next level, making the sealing of low-level misdemeanors automatic if a person has gone a decade without a new conviction. The second law took effect this summer.
“Getting an underage drinking citation shouldn’t keep you from getting a job that you are very good at,” Pennsylvania state Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) said as the bill was signed into law.
The law found very little opposition in the Pennsylvania Legislature. It received just two “no” votes in the state House and passed the Senate with unanimous support. Gov. Tom Wolfe signed it into law, noting that it would help people “get back on their path to a blemish-free life.”
The Clean Slate bill also got a boost from the NFL Players Coalition, which has made criminal justice reform one of its social justice priorities. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins came to the state Capitol in Harrisburg to lobby in favor of the bill and wrote an opinion piece with Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith to gather momentum to pass the bill. “Clean Slate won’t fix everything, but it’s a critical step forward,” the two wrote.
The Pennsylvania Clean Slate law is the first law in the nation to make any form of expungement automatic. However, it might not be the only one state in the country to automatically seal records for long. Look for information about efforts to bring Clean Slate to Michigan in a future blog post.
Read the first blog in this series: Clearing records paves the way to jobs, housing, and education
Read the second blog in this series: A Brief History of Expungement in Michigan