There wasn’t a lot of fanfare to go with it, but Pennsylvania took an important step this week toward reducing recidivism and driving down the amount that taxpayers spend on keeping their fellow citizens behind bars.
A new state program called My Clean Slate provides free legal consultation to determine eligibility to participate in this new “clean slate” law that Gov. Tom Wolf signed last year. The law allows those with non-violent first-degree misdemeanors and most simple assault convictions to petition to have their records sealed. As PennLive’s Jan Murphy reports, applicants must have been conviction-free for 10 years and owe no outstanding costs or fines to be eligible.
The law also expands criminal record sealing to include more offenses by filing petitions. It also creates an automated computer process that will go into effect on June 29 to seal arrests that didn’t result in convictions within 60 days, summary convictions after 10 years and some second- and third-degree misdemeanor convictions if there are no subsequent convictions for 10 years.
It’s no secret that having a criminal record is a major barrier to employment and that employment is one of the best ways to make sure that people stay out of trouble, out of the criminal justice system, and out of jail. According to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 77 million Americans have a criminal record. That amounts to 1 in 3 adults.
As recently as 2014, “employment barriers faced by people with felony convictions — including occupational licensing and other challenges, such as lower levels of education and job skills — were associated with a reduction in the overall employment rate, amounting to a loss of at least 1.7 million workers from the workforce and a cost of at least $78 billion to the economy,” the research noted.
And after years of get-tough measures that resulted in lower crime rates by warehousing offenders at a huge cost to state budgets and did little to actually fight crime, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle realized that it was time to take a smarter approach.
The Pennsylvania law, authored by state Reps. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, and Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, is one such example of that bipartisan cooperation.
At a news conference this week announcing the new program, Delozier said she encouraged “anyone with a nonviolent criminal record to see if they are eligible for this opportunity. A minor mistake more than a decade ago should not keep someone from obtaining employment or renting an apartment.”
Harris added that bill is a “first step in helping people become fully engaged citizens again, and now easing the process for them to get their second chance is next.”
The action in Pennsylvania comes amid the bipartisan recognition in Washington that America has to be smarter about fighting crime.
Late last year, Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed, a landmark criminal justice reform bill known as The First Step Act, that would allow about 181,000 imprisoned people in the federal system to earn an earlier release in prison and ease mandatory minimum sentences under federal law, among other reforms, Vox reported.
The new Pennsylvania law, which comes on top of other reforms by Wolf and under the administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, is a reminder that, after years of unquestioningly locking people up and throwing away the key, that Pennsylvania has turned the corner on criminal justice and emerged as that most welcome of all things: a national model for reform.
But, of course, that work must continue.