Pennsylvania Begins Unprecedented Sealing of Millions of Criminal Records
By Samantha Melamed
It was late on Oct. 11, 2006, when Khalia Robinson, then six months pregnant, got a craving for Chinese food. The corner takeout was packed, full of hungry patrons, people hanging out, a guy selling bootleg CDs. As Robinson squeezed in, her giant belly knocked a pile of CDs from a windowsill. As she was stacking them up again, she looked up to see a police officer standing over her, telling her she was under arrest.
Almost a year later, Robinson finally beat the counterfeiting charges. But the criminal record it left behind was a stain that wouldn't wash out, showing up whenever she tried to land a new job.
"When you pull up my FBI record, it looks like I have a rap sheet as long as a thief," she said. That she was innocent didn't matter. "It looks really bad."
Starting today, Pennsylvania will automatically begin sealing 30 million records like Robinson's -- charges that did not result in convictions, as well as summary offenses and low-level misdemeanors committed by people who have not incurred any other charges within 10 years. The automatic sealing, part of the Clean Slate law passed last year, is the first such endeavor in the nation.
"This Clean Slate law is really about preventing a criminal charge being a life sentence to poverty," said Katie Svoboda-Kindle, a staff attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which in 2017 filed 3,000 petitions to clear old records that were keeping clients from moving on with their lives. "Having charges or even just arrests on your record affects your ability to get good-paying work, housing, education."
This marks the second phase of Pennsylvania's Clean Slate rollout. The first, which began last December, allowed for people who had old misdemeanors on their records and who had not been in trouble for a decade to apply for their records to be sealed.
The state had previously allowed certain criminal records to be expunged, or erased, after a waiting period. The new law includes a wider range of offenses, but instead of expunging merely seals them. That means the records will still be visible to law enforcement, and can still show up on FBI background checks, used by schools, hospitals and casinos.
One study, conducted at the University of Michigan Law School, found people who received expungements saw their wages increase by an average of 25 percent within two years.
But without automated record-sealing laws, filing for expungement of an old criminal record can cost hundreds of dollars just in fees -- not even counting the cost of legal representation. Robinson said she looked into it at one point. "But I didn't know what the process was. I didn't have any money for a lawyer," she said. "So I went on and kept trying to work without it."
Today, she has her own business, helping up-and-coming artists develop their talents, record music and navigate copyright and other paperwork. But, she said, knowing that the old and unfounded charges will no longer follow her to business meetings or job interviews is a relief.
States around the country are watching the rollout in Pennsylvania, said Jenna Moll of Justice Action Network, a bipartisan criminal-justice reform advocacy organization. Utah became the second state to enact its own automated sealing bill this year. She anticipates the scale of the automatic sealing -- estimated by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts at more than 2 million records per month over the next year -- will draw attention from lawmakers considering such legislation, from California to the U.S. Capitol.
"It is a game-changer not only for the individuals, but for the states as well: It's less bureaucracy, less red tape," she said. "A lot of states are looking not only at the automation, but also at the bipartisan way Pennsylvania got this done."
Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said he anticipates the Clean Slate initiative will be valuable in bringing more people into the workforce.
"We have a workforce problem in this commonwealth and this country. We have large numbers of jobs without people to fill them, and we do have people without jobs. How do we make a system to break those barriers down? We see Clean Slate as a way to do that," he said.
Though some companies are seeking to hire formerly incarcerated people, others fear liability. Clean Slate, he said, "basically gives our guys protection. ... It gives employers the cover to take the step and hire someone who is going out and trying to improve themselves."
(c)2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer