The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Criminal records can be a ‘life sentence to poverty.’ This state is automatically sealing some.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) addresses the media in Harrisburg, Pa., on Friday, the day he signed legislation known as the Clean Slate Act, touted as a way to give offenders a fresh start. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Research shows that the vast majority of people who could expunge their criminal records never do it. Petitioning for a clean record can be confusing and costly.

Pennsylvania changed that Friday when it became the first state to start automatically sealing eligible criminal records so that they cannot affect people’s chances for employment, education and housing, even as law enforcement officials retain the records. Legislation passed last year paved the way for the state to begin sealing 30 million criminal cases.

The changes — which proponents say will not only give more people the second chances they deserve but also lower government costs by eliminating a mire of red tape — are taking hold across the United States. Last year, Utah became the second state to approve “clean slate” legislation automating criminal record-clearing, and other legislatures, including Arkansas and California, are considering it. A bipartisan bill introduced in August seeks comparable changes at the federal level.

“It became pretty clear that states across the country were all looking to Pennsylvania and interested in following in its footsteps by taking on similar reforms,” said Rebecca Vallas, who has helped lead the push for clean-slate bills across the country through the nonprofit Center for American Progress.

Interest in the Clean Slate Act’s reforms spans the political spectrum, she said — “red states, blue states, purple states alike.”

Sharon Dietrich, litigation director for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, pushed for automation after watching her organization’s low-income clients wait longer and longer for hearings after petitioning to clear their records. She knew her group’s help would never be enough: They were handling hundreds of cases a year, maybe thousands, she said, “and we were not starting to touch the need for that service.”

Dietrich and her group ended up spearheading the automation effort in the state.

A 2014 report by Dietrich and Vallas makes the case for broader expunging and sealing of criminal records, saying that with 9 out of 10 employers, 4 out of 5 landlords and a majority of colleges screening applicants with background checks, even a minor offense can be “a life sentence to poverty,” as Vallas puts it.

University of Michigan researchers found that people who got their records cleared in Michigan saw their wages go up by more than 20 percent within a year. But only 6.5 percent of those who could have their records wiped actually went through with it within five years of becoming eligible, they found.

The new Pennsylvania policy affects those who were arrested but not convicted, as well as those who have committed crimes deemed less serious, such as shoplifting and prostitution. These minor convictions can be removed from someone’s record after a decade unless the person commits another offense and as long as they make any payments ordered by the court.

Dietrich said the changes turned out to be a relatively easy sell in Pennsylvania, where the Clean Slate Act picked up sponsors among both Democrats and Republicans and garnered support well beyond defendant advocates. It gained what Vallas calls a “truly strange bedfellow coalition” ranging from her own organization to a group funded by the conservative Koch family — “groups that don’t agree on almost anything else,” she said.

Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said his group supported the state’s Clean Slate Act in part because it helps businesses, too. He thinks the new law will help more ex-convicts become much-needed employees as well as reassure companies concerned about liability when they hire those with a criminal record.

“When our members continue to tell us how difficult it is to fill jobs they have available … we said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to do something about this,’ ” he said.

The Washington Post reported last year on a similarly bipartisan group of organizations that got behind a campaign to extend automatic expunging and sealing of criminal records nationally.

Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Act is also expected to save the state money. A recent paper puts the cost of clearing records under Pennsylvania’s automated model at 5 cents per case, compared with up to thousands of dollars under normal petition systems. That efficiency boost has helped the proposal gain bipartisan backing, Dietrich said.

Proponents of clean slate bills in other states are expecting similar broad support. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, a sponsor of California’s AB 1076, introduced this year, said that if the bill passes — and the response has been largely welcoming, he says — it would create even more sweeping changes than Pennsylvania’s law has, as California offers more people the chance to seal their records and allows them to do it sooner after they have served their time.

Gascón’s support for AB 1076 grew out of not just watching what Pennsylvania is doing but also out of his office’s experience with proactively clearing marijuana-related convictions after California legalized recreational use of the drug. In San Francisco, only about two dozen people petitioned to have their crimes sealed under the new marijuana policy, he said. When his office decided to automatically clear eligible records with help from the nonprofit Code for America, they granted relief to almost 9,400 people, according to the district attorney’s office.

While initiatives like AB 1076 may find opponents in the “tough on crime” crowd, Gascón said, he believes the changes will only help law enforcement by reducing recidivism. He sees attitudes shifting, away from a belief that the best way to keep the public safe is to “lock people up for as long as we could” and toward a recognition that criminal justice should be proactive about setting people up for success when they leave incarceration.

“When you foreclose the ability for people to get employment, education, housing, you set them up for failure,” he said.

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