Friday, October 30, 2020

Clean Slate Law won't let poverty stand in the way of sealing criminal records

Pennsylvanians whose ancient, minor criminal records have continued to haunt them are getting a break that could help them land a better job and find better housing, reported The Morning Call.

The state’s Clean Slate Law, which blocks many criminal records from public view, was amended recently to allow records to be sealed even if fines and court fees remain unpaid.

All court costs previously had to be paid to qualify.

That left many convicts unable to escape their past and put them in a cycle they couldn’t break. To be able to pay their fines and fees, they needed a good job. But they often couldn’t get one because they couldn’t pass a background check.

It was sort of a debtor’s prison without bars.

“The whole point of this is to find a job,” the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, told me Wednesday.

Fines and fees still will be owed, and counties will continue trying to collect them. But that debt won’t preclude cases from automatically being removed from public access if they meet the other criteria under the Clean Slate Law.

“It’s important and it’s common sense public policy,” Delozier said.

It’s also a rare example of bipartisanship by the Pennsylvania Legislature, which passed the bill unanimously. The final vote occurred Oct. 21. Gov. Tom Wolf will sign the bill, his spokeswoman said.

This is the kind of criminal justice reform the state should be pursuing. Removing barriers that allow people to find good-paying jobs is a victory for everyone.

The poverty rate could be reduced, lowering the burden on government assistance programs and social services. Higher wages mean higher tax collections for governments. Higher wages also make it more likely that people will be able to pay off any fines or fees they owe the courts, completely satisfying their debt to society.

The change also could open doors for people to move into better housing, as landlords often run background checks.

Once Wolf signs the bill, the state would have one year to seal the eligible cases. But individuals can petition their county court to seal their records sooner, 60 days after the bill is signed. There is a cost to file a petition, but low-income people may qualify for a waiver of that fee.

The Clean Slate Law, passed in 2018, was the first of its kind in the nation. It resulted in about 35 million criminal records being blocked from public view, with a few exceptions, as of this summer.

They include records of arrests that did not result in conviction and records of summary convictions that are more than 10 years old. Records of second- and third-degree misdemeanor convictions with maximum sentences of two years are sealed if they are more than 10 years old and the person has not had other misdemeanor or felony convictions since.

The law requires restitution to crime victims to be paid in full to qualify. That should not change, as criminals should not get a break until their victims have been compensated, no matter how long ago the offense occurred.

Records sealed from public view under the Clean Slate Law still can be accessed by employers who are required by federal law to consider criminal records during the hiring process and those who use FBI background checks such as schools, hospitals, law enforcement and banks.

So far, the law has been more likely to benefit white people than Black people. The amendment that will be made through House Bill 440 could change that.

Only 12% of those who had misdemeanor convictions sealed automatically were Black while 86% were white, according to Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which cited state police data.

Half of people with misdemeanor convictions statewide would have been eligible to have their records sealed automatically if it hadn’t been for unpaid fines and fees, according to Community Legal Services, which cited data from the Philadelphia district attorney’s office.

The people qualifying for Clean Slate aren’t career criminals or big-time offenders. Felons and people who endangered others, those convicted of gun crimes or sex crimes and those with multiple serious convictions are not eligible.

And if people who are in Clean Slate break the law again, their history still can be held against them by the legal system.

While Clean Slate blocks their records from public view through the state’s online case docket and online public searches, the record remains available to be considered during prosecution of future crimes. It is not expunged, just sealed with limited access.

House Bill 440 automatically expunges some records, in cases where all charges are acquitted and cases where pardons are received.

I’m all for locking up the worst offenders and throwing away the key. But a run-in with the law for a minor crime a long time ago shouldn’t be the burden it has been for many people. This is a big step toward solving that problem.

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