If you have a criminal record, read this

Important information if you have a criminal record.

Effective November 14, people with certain misdemeanor convictions can ask the court to seal their records. The sealed record will only be available to law enforcement officers, and, if your record is sealed, you can truthfully tell a prospective employer that you have no criminal record.

Click here to learn more.

In order to qualify, your conviction can be nothing more serious than a second or third degree misdemeanor (such as drug possession, minor theft, disorderly conduct). You have to have been free of arrest or conviction for 10 years. You must never have been convicted of certain crimes, includng felonies and a second degree simple assault.  You can't have any more than four misdemeanor convictions and you must have paid all fines and costs owed on your cases.  

Here's some background from an interview with Sharon Dietrich, who leads the employment law practice at Community Legal Services, and who helped to spearhead this legislation in Pennsylvania. 

"There's a good part to this story. We had just had Act 5 pass. It was signed by Governor Wolf in February, and it goes into effect on November 14th. That is a law that will expand the sealing of misdemeanor convictions, which to this point we've never had in Pennsylvania," Dietrich said.

Von Bergen: Explain what you mean by expanding the sealing.

Dietrich: I guess actually expanding the sealing is wrong because we never had a sealing before. It is bringing the sealing to misdemeanor convictions. So, let me explain the difference between expungement and ceiling. Expungement means  a case is destroyed, literally, physically destroyed. So, the court will have a file. They get an expungement order; they're supposed to put it in the shredder. It comes off the computerized docket. The state police take it out of their information. It's just gone, wiped out.

Sealing is a little bit different. Sealing is meant to retain the information for law enforcement purposes, but not make it available for other public purposes. So, if that person were rearrested, the district attorney would know that they had this prior case, and maybe that would affect their bail, or their sentence in the next case, but employers would not know about this case, or landlords, or colleges.

Von Bergen: Explain how it works. 

Dietrich: Good question. First of all, it doesn't happen the first minute. You have to have 10 years past from the time that you completed your sentence on certain misdemeanors. There actually are lots of exceptions in Act 5. Covered are second and third degree misdemeanors, and what they call ungraded misdemeanors, which are often drug cases. First degree, not covered. Simple assault, not covered. Felony's not covered and in fact if you have any of those it disqualifies you from getting the other cases sealed. That's the main idea behind it. You have to file a petition, same as you do for expungement.

Von Bergen: What about if you are arrested, but not convicted, if the case is thrown out?

Dietrich: Basically if you're not convicted, no harm is supposed to come to you as a result of that case. Under Pennsylvania law employers are not supposed to consider that case. You can get it expunged. Non-convictions are always in a posture where you can try to get them off your record. That's very different than when you're convicted.

Even though employers are not supposed to make decisions based on arrest if you weren't convicted, they do all the time, which was why we have such a robust expungement practice.

Von Bergen: Is it usually successful?

Dietrich: Yes.  It comes and goes depending on whether the District Attorney's  office is objecting a lot. If they're in a period where they're making lots of objections then sometimes we have to fight harder.

Next: Working poor face more problems on the job.