Half of all the criminal records in Pennsylvania—covering some 30 million cases—are about to be sealed over the next year, helping people who had minor brushes with the law pass background checks for jobs and housing.
“A couple of decades ago, this was barely a blip on our radar,” says Jamie Gullen, an attorney with Community Legal Services, a legal aid provider in Philadelphia. “But as technology started making these records more and more widely available, the commercial background-checking industry really exploded.”
Now, about two-thirds of the group’s clients need help with sealing their records. Even non-convictions can be a problem. People who were arrested and never charged, or charged but found not guilty, still have records in their file. “There’s no record too old or too minor to stop somebody from getting a job,” Gullen says. “We’ve seen people with decades-old and non-conviction arrest records be denied jobs.”
The volume of record-sealing cases has grown so much in Philadelphia, in fact, that the legal aid group developed computer scripts to automatically generate legal documents that get the records sealed. Pennsylvania is one of the few states where all the criminal courts and law enforcement agencies use the same computer system, making the expungement process simpler.
But while the computer program has made life easier for legal aid attorneys, the increased volume of requests added to the caseloads of judges and prosecutors, who had to review and approve them. So legal aid activists started pushing the Clean Slate bill, providing for many of the cases to be sealed automatically. That expungement would apply to the least controversial cases: nonviolent misdemeanors and assault cases that are 10 years old or older, if the offender hasn’t committed another crime since and has paid all court fines.
The Clean Slate legislation passed almost unanimously this year in both chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Sen. Scott Wagner, a Republican, was one of the main sponsors. Outside groups supporting the idea included the AFL-CIO and the Center for American Progress on the left, and Americans for Prosperity, an organization supported, in part, by Charles Koch, on the right.
The effort has attracted nationwide attention. Utah passed a similar law to Pennsylvania’s. Lawmakers in California and North Carolina have considered bills as well. Enacting Clean Slate legislation will take more work in some states, depending on how their law enforcement computer systems are set up. But while states are improving their databases, lawmakers can still lower the barriers to sealing old criminal records the old-fashioned way.
The real key to success, though, is building a bipartisan coalition like the one in Pennsylvania, says Jenna Moll, the deputy director of the Justice Action Network. “The bill sponsors in Pennsylvania were just awesome in terms of putting policy ahead of partisan politics,” she says. “That’s definitely something we hope to replicate in every state.”
This story has been updated.