The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
January 13, 2012
Pennsylvania provides former offenders with few opportunities to clear their criminal records.
Under current law an offender’s criminal record may be expunged, with court approval, when the offender reaches age 70 and has been free from arrest for ten years following release from confinement or community supervision. Also, an individual convicted of a summary offense who has been free from arrest for five years following a conviction may seek to have the conviction expunged.
The Pennsylvania legislature has considered expanding the opportunity for those convicted to get a clean slate. In 2007, the house passed a bill expanding the grounds for expungement to certain misdemeanors. It didn’t go anywhere .
Last session, expungement legislation was re-introduced and the house passed a bill by a vote of 104 to 91. The Senate Judiciary Committee reported the bill out from committee but the bill sat without a vote for the remainder of the session.
During the current legislative session, State Senator Tim Solobay (D., Canonsburg) introduced S.B. 1220. The legislation provides that an offender may seek to remove a conviction if it was a misdemeanor of the third degree and the offender has been free of arrest for seven years; or a misdemeanor of the second degree if the offender has been free of arrest for ten years following release from confinement or community supervision.
The bill has bi-partisan support. "The sentence they were given," said Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a bill cosponsor, "it wasn't to punish them for the rest of their lives."
Thirteen states, including Texas known for its tough law and order legislation, recently expanded their expungement laws. New Jersey allows certain nonviolent felony convictions to be expunged 10 years after release from confinement. For misdemeanors, the waiting period is five years.
Earlier this week, Mathew K. Higbee, chairman of the Foundation for Continuing Justice, wrote in the Post-Gazette supporting expungement legislation, “Studies consistently show that individuals who are without employment or a connection to their communities are far more likely to commit criminal offenses.”
How does an employer know when it’s alright to disregard a criminal record? Researchers in Pittsburgh are looking for the answer. CMU’s Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura believe that their research provides the criminal justice community with the first scientific method for estimating how long is "long enough" for someone with a prior record to remain arrest-free before being considered "redeemed" by a prospective employer.
Their research found, in part, that an 18 year-old convicted of robbery is no more likely to commit another crime than the rest of the population once 7.7 years have passed crime-free since the offense.
The research promises to be more helpful to former offenders than S.B 1220. The pending legislation applies only to low-level offenses. Those most burdened by criminal records are those with felony convictions. Policymakers are less likely to provide an opportunity to erase serious felony convictions.
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