A First in the Nation, Pennsylvania Seals Some Criminal Records

by | July 3, 2018

By J.D. Prose

Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday signed a "clean slate" bill that seals nonviolent criminal records after a decade, a move that progressive groups touted as a first for any state and a national model for planned federal legislation.

"This is a really good thing," Wolf said of House Bill 1419, which passed the state House 188-2 in April before being unanimously approved by the Senate last week. All local House legislators voted for the bill.

The new law allows Pennsylvanians to seek having their nonviolent misdemeanor records that carried a sentence of a year or more in jail sealed if they have remained out of trouble for 10 years and paid all fines and costs.

It also implements automatic sealing of records for second- or third-degree misdemeanor convictions that carried sentences of two years or less if the individual has avoided other convictions for a decade, and for arrest records of those who were never convicted.

Offenses involving guns, sexual assaults/rapes, murder, kidnapping, child endangerment and endangering the welfare of children are not subject to the law.

Proponents said the bill would help those who might be hampered in finding jobs, housing or college opportunities by criminal background checks that show cases from years ago after they have improved their lives.

"People who have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to minor misdemeanors many years ago deserve a second chance," state Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland County, the bill's prime sponsor, said in a statement from Wolf's office. "They have shown that they have reformed their lives, and this barrier to employment and housing needs to be removed."

In a conference call with several groups before the bill signing, Wolf said a minor criminal offense is frequently "a life sentence to poverty" for people who are dogged by decades-old convictions.

"It's one strike and you're out," he said.

Wolf said the bill drew bipartisan support in Harrisburg because it is good public policy.

"It appeals to practical common sense, and in the end that's what prevailed," he said.

Supporters have previously argued that 81 percent of Pennsylvanians supported the clean-slate bill and that 3 million Pennsylvanians, more than a third of the state's working-age population, have criminal records, with many carrying misdemeanor records or arrests without conviction.

Wolf used his family business as an example of the impact the clean slate bill could have on people. He said his company's Second Chance program resulted in hiring "great employees" who were wanted to prove they had changed.

"They were outstanding employees," Wolf said. "They wanted to make a point."

Joining in on the call was U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., who plans on using Pennsylvania's bill as a model for legislation applied to nonviolent federal convictions.

"We don't just want it to be one state; we want it to be national," she said.

Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, praised Pennsylvania for its "groundbreaking law" that makes it the first state with a clean-slate program. For thousands of Pennsylvanians now, "a single mistake won't define the rest of their lives," she said.

"It gives those who deserve it a true second chance at life," Jason Pye, vice president for legislative affairs for FreedomWorks, said of the law.

(c)2018 the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.)