A little over a year ago, Pennsylvania became the first state to automatically clear some criminal records as part of a new “Clean Slate” Initiative. The effects of this law have been nothing short of staggering: more than a million Pennsylvanians have had cases sealed or removed from the public eye, allowing them to more fully participate in the workforce and civil society. However, given the current economic downturn and continued proliferation of criminal records, it is clear more work remains to be done.
Before this new legislation was signed into law, Pennsylvania allowed some individuals convicted of misdemeanors to petition a court to seal their records after remaining crime free for 10 years. However, these requests were only granted after an often long and expensive legal process, limiting many individuals from applying to seal their records. Under this old system, roughly 1,500 cases were sealed from November 2016 to June 2020.
To correct this inefficiency, the Clean Slate Act implemented a process in 2019 to automatically seal some misdemeanor offenses and cases without a conviction. After just one year under the Clean Slate Act, Pennsylvania was able to automatically seal more than 107,000 misdemeanor convictions. On top of this, more than 16,000,000 cases that did not result in a conviction were automatically sealed.
Sealing people’s criminal records once they have served their punishment and proven that they can live crime-free is critical for social reintegration. Even a minor criminal offense committed a long time ago can haunt people their entire lives, reducing access to jobs, housing and, in many states, placing limitations on their civil rights.
Not to mention, mitigating the collateral consequences of a criminal record can help the entire economy: It has been estimated that upward of $78 billion in annual GDP is lost due to work barriers associated with criminal records. In contrast, a 2019 study found that removing individuals’ criminal records from the public eye is associated with a significant increase in individuals’ wages and allows new people to enter the workforce.
While some argue that removing a criminal record could harm public safety, the same study found that people with cleared records had arrest rates akin to the general population and pose no more threat than the average person. Indeed, broader research literature suggests people quickly reach their “point of redemption.”
Given the general need for record clearing and the apparent success of automation, lawmakers should now turn to part two of this effort. After all, Pennsylvania is currently facing a multibillion dollar budget shortfall amid a global pandemic and economic recession, and getting more people back to work is of greater importance than ever before.
Lawmakers can begin by revising the current requirement that individuals with misdemeanor convictions pay all their court-ordered debt prior to having their record sealed. While individuals should still be required to complete any payments to victims directly related to a crime, it is unwise to make court fees alone a prerequisite for record sealing: Having one’s record sealed can lead to increased wages and thus help someone repay their court debt faster than they normally would under the current system. Finally, this policy disadvantages the state’s poorest residents while favoring those with means. It’s estimated that this one requirement is responsible for disqualifying half of the statewide pool of otherwise eligible misdemeanor cases from automatic sealing.
Lawmakers should also consider expanding the list of convictions able to be automatically sealed. Serious violent crimes like murder will always be poor candidates for record sealing. But by stating that individuals with felony conditions have to remain crime free for several years in order to be eligible for automatic sealing, policymakers can greatly enhance the reach of Clean Slate policies without jeopardizing public safety. This policy is already on the table in other states: A Clean Slate proposal in Michigan would allow people with low-level felonies to have their record automatically expunged if they’ve remained crime free for 10 years.
Pennsylvania established its commitment to second chances, jobs and economic vitality last year when it enacted Clean Slate reform. Now, it is time for state lawmakers to build upon this legacy by removing more barriers to automatic sealing and expanding the number of qualifying convictions. After all, in the eyes of the law, these individuals have already paid their debt to society.