Pennsylvania Opens Up A New Front In The Battle To Tame The American Criminal Justice System

Pennsylvania lawmakers unveil legislation to automatically seal minor criminal records that currently keep citizens locked into long-term poverty. CREDIT: ALAN PYKE/THINKPROGRESS
Pennsylvania lawmakers unveil legislation to automatically seal minor criminal records that currently keep citizens locked into long-term poverty. CREDIT: ALAN PYKE/THINKPROGRESS

HARRISBURG, PA — April chokes up a bit remembering how it felt to be separated from her infant son when she fell back into using drugs at age 19.

April, now 29, kicked her habit for good that year. But before she did, she also got caught stealing. “I’ve been clean for 10 years now. But those misdemeanors still follow me when I try to get jobs,” she said.

It makes me look like someone I’m not now.

April doesn’t use her last name while talking to me. That would defeat the purpose of her trip up to the state capital from her home in Lebanon County, where she raises her four children and studies nutrition at a nearby community college.


In a background check database, strangers don’t see the long-recovered mother who beams about her oldest boy’s love for drawing. On paper, April is still a crook. More than one potential employer has told her they wanted to give her a job, but company policy wouldn’t allow it.

“I’m kind of worried about if I’ll be able to get a job when I finish school. I know these employers are all going to see that I stole something. It makes me look untrustworthy,” she said. “It makes me look like someone I’m not now.”

April quickly shrugged off the gloom of revisiting her decade-old mistakes. Wednesday was a happy day: Small-time crime and arrest records will be sealed automatically for thousands of people like April under new legislation, dubbed the Clean Slate initiative, introduced by a large bipartisan group of lawmakers in Harrisburg.

The Clean Slate initiative is the first of its kind in the nation. Several states from Ohio to Mississippi to California have reformed their recordkeeping laws in recent years as activists called attention to the lingering harms that even a simple arrest with no criminal charge can inflict.

How Criminal Justice Reform Became The Least Controversial Issue In The 2016 Presidential Raceby CREDIT: AP/Timothy D. Eeasley Likely 2016 candidates on the left and right are sharply divided when it comes to how…thinkprogress.orgBut Pennsylvania will be the first to automate the process, a significant step forward for people who don’t have the resources to petition the court for the kind of relief other states have made available.


Women like April who manage to get plugged into free legal aid programs can now request to have their records wiped away under a law signed by Gov. Tom Wolf (D) earlier this year.

But thousands of others “qualify for sealing their records, expunging their records, and they don’t have an attorney and can’t get one,” said Community Legal Services litigation director Sharon Dietrich. “This bill is the single most important thing we can do for people with minor records and non-conviction records.”

If Wolf eventually signs Clean Slate into law, misdemeanor records will be automatically sealed after 10 years for people who do not reoffend. Summary offenses like shoplifting will become invisible to employers, landlords, and college admissions officials after five years. When law enforcement decides not to charge a person at all, the record of her arrest will be sealed within 60 days. Juvenile delinquency records will also be sealed after seven years.

We keep punishing them more until they can’t function in our society.

Records of violent misdemeanors such as assault, stalking, and terroristic threats won’t be sealed. Sexual crimes will also remain visible no matter how much time passes. And law enforcement agencies will retain access to everyone’s full file.

The same legal snares that trap April in Pennsylvania are also binding tens of millions of Americans nationwide. Government crime data suggests that as many as 100 million people — about half of all U.S. adults — have criminal records. The National Employment Law Project thinks that estimate is about 30 percent too high, but even their conservative guess suggests that one in five Americans of all ages have a record that could keep them from being fairly considered for jobs, housing, and other essential economic opportunities.


April has four elementary school-aged kids, and she’s in good company. Many of the people who stand to benefit from policies like Clean Slate have families to support. More than 33 million American children have at least one parent with a criminal record, a December report from the Center for American Progress indicates.

Lawmakers hope to enact Clean Slate this year. The size and shape of the coalition of supporters at Wednesday’s unveiling suggests the bill will move quickly.

State Sens. Scott Wagner (R) and Tony Williams (D) have already enlisted 24 of their colleagues as co-sponsors on day one, meaning more than half of the upper chamber is already on board. State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R), a 37-year veteran of the statehouse who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, supports the bill and plans to take it up quickly in his committee. In the House, Reps. Jordan Harris (D) and Sheryl Delozier (R) have 38 of their 200-plus colleagues signed on to the bill.

Each chamber wants to be first to pass Clean Slate. “It’s a race,” Williams said. “I do not deny the competition.” enthusiastic support of law enforcement officials like Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed should grease the skids.

“Low-level crimes shouldn’t scar you for life,” Freed told ThinkProgress. Prosecutors around the state may seek minor changes to the language of the bill, he said, “but as a concept, this is something prosecutors are behind.”

Freed’s support speaks to more than just buy-in from law enforcement officials. He prosecutes crimes in a county that’s 90 percent white. Harris and Williams serve Philadelphia, which is roughly half white and half black, and about 26 times as densely populated as Cumberland County. The group convening around Clean Slate brings very different experiences to the table.

“Say you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of young people who’ve been exposed to stop-and-frisk. You get put up against the wall, you turn to the police officer and say ‘What’s going on?’ He decides to arrest you and put on your record a Disorderly Conduct,” Williams said. “That will follow you for the rest of your life.”

Such discriminatory police practices in Philadelphia and elsewhere had been widely criticized for years without delivering the same kind of reform momentum on display Wednesday in Harrisburg.

The recent burst of political will to reform the criminal justice system has largely focused on the nation’s prisons and courts. Black men are six times more likely than white men to be imprisoned, and municipal courts in many parts of the country now use civil fines for minor offenses to strip money out of impoverished communities.

What Pennsylvania is trying to do this spring invites attention to another, much larger population of Americans who find themselves jammed up by the justice system. Of all those tens of millions Americans with a criminal record, only a small fraction have spent time in prison. Reforming the prison system, restoring educational and vocational opportunities for the incarcerated, and ending the policies that cage nonviolent people for years and years are all essential to driving down recidivism rates and delivering a more just society.

But there are also at least 60 million Americans who struggle to find work and economic security without ever having been to prison. The same sorts of racial disparities that define the U.S. incarceration system also crop up in statistics about arrests, suggesting that black and brown people make up a disproportionate share of criminal records nationwide.

Policies that allow employers and landlords to simply discard those people sight unseen are also encouraging Americans to turn to crime to support themselves and their families. And as right and left politicians and advocates make common cause around reforming prejudicial policing, the criminalization of poverty, and the racist War on Drugs, something as straightforward as Clean Slate may prove contagious far from the Keystone State.

Low-level crimes shouldn’t scar you for life.

“We’re sending a clear, bipartisan message to our commonwealth and the nation,” Rep. Delozier said Wednesday. “We all make mistakes. Let’s work these bills through so they who deserve a clean slate can have one.”

About 30 feet away, April stood watching the press conference.

She expects to finish her degree this year and is eager to start a career. April has a lot of different ideas about how to apply her skills. Maybe a home health care job. Maybe as a dietician in a community health clinic. “A helping profession,” she said — that’s more important to her than the title or the tasks.

But at least for now, her record puts most caretaking jobs out of reach. “Sometimes I write a followup letter about how my life is different now, and about what I regret about the past, and how I changed my life,” April said. “But then I get a letter, ‘we regret to inform you.’ In the first impression, that’s what they see.”

Maybe this time around, she won’t have to explain what happened 10 years ago. She won’t have to hope somebody will take a chance on her.

“I just wish I was able to get opportunities,” she said, “and people didn’t have to know that about me.”