Long-awaited 'clean slate' bill moves to Gov. Wolf

Pennsylvania State Capitol
Pennsylvania’s state Capitol building in downtown Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG — A fresh start. A tabula rasa.

A clean slate.

Pennsylvanians who were arrested or convicted on summary offenses or some misdemeanors will soon have the opportunity to have their criminal records sealed by the court if they have remained law-abiding.

The Senate passed House Bill 1419 – dubbed the “Clean Slate Act” – by a vote of 49-0. The bill is now on its way to Gov. Wolf, who has said he would sign it as a measure to help ex-offenders move forward.

Minor crimes committed – or even just arrests — earlier in a person’s life could affect opportunities for employment, education, and housing for decades.

Under the bill, people who were convicted of summary offenses, like low-level retail theft, harassment, disorderly conduct, or some misdemeanors can have their records sealed after 10 years of crime-free living. Those with two or more first-degree misdemeanors can have their records sealed after 15 years. People who were arrested but never convicted of a crime can have their records sealed immediately.

Those convicted of, or arrested on, minor, nonviolent crimes were able to petition the courts to expunge their records under a 2016 law, but that is a bureaucratic procedure that often requires the expense of a lawyer. In the future, records in such cases will automatically be sealed by the court’s computer system.

This bill will do “a lot of good for a lot of people,” said Sharon Dietrich, litigation director for Community Legal Services. The measure drew wide support, including from Mayor Kenney and Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto.

People can begin to petition the court for their records to be sealed in January. The computer system will begin automatically sealing records in two years, providing time for state police and the courts to prepare the system.

After a record is sealed, it can no longer be accessed by the public. Police can still access the records.

The bill was introduced in March 2017 by prime sponsors Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R., Cumberland) and Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Phila.).

Delozier said she was relieved the legislature was able to pass this bill after spending the last year educating other members of the General Assembly about its impact on the workforce.

“When you’ve done something wrong as a youth or you make a mistake, businesses want good workers,” she added. “Getting an underage drinking citation shouldn’t keep you from getting a job that you are very good at.”

The bill also drew support from some national organizations, including the NFL Players Coalition, which works to address social issues the players care about.

Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and wide receiver Torrey Smith penned an opinion piece for CNN on the legislation Thursday. Jenkins, who leads the players group and is an advocate of criminal justice reform, came to Harrisburg to lobby for the legislation with Smith and defensive end Chris Long last October.

“Clean Slate won’t fix everything, but it’s a critical step forward,” the two wrote.

Once enacted, the law would make Pennsylvania the first state to use technology to automatically seal criminal records.

Gillian@temple.edu