Pa. Senate passes first-of-its-kind bill sealing some criminal records

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State Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Phila., and Sen Scott Wagner, R-York, are co-sponsors of legislation that would automatically seal minor criminal records after a period of arrest-free years.

In the fractured state of the commonwealth that is Pennsylvania, a first-of-its-kind bill that would seal criminal records for minor offenses passed unanimously in the Senate on Wednesday.

“Unanimous,” crowed Community Legal Services employment attorney Sharon Dietrich, punctuating her email with three exclamation points. Dietrich has long advocated for this type of legislation.

“Wow, that’s impressive — by Harrisburg standards, or by contemporary political standards, for that matter,” said political science professor Christopher Borick, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

The measure now moves to the State House, where there is less broad support. Gov. Wolf has promised to sign the legislation.

“By automatically removing the stain of a criminal record for nonviolent misdemeanors after the person has remained crime-free for 10 years, Pennsylvania is leading the nation on policies that will reduce recidivism and open doors for those who have turned their lives around,” said Holly Harris, executive director of Justice Action Network, a national group linking progressive and conservative groups working on changing the criminal-justice system.

Under the legislation, misdemeanor records would be sealed after 10 years in which an individual was crime-free. Records of arrests that did not result in conviction also would be sealed.

People who committed violent offenses, or those related to indecent exposure, weapons violations, corruption of minors, or cruelty to animals would not be able to have their records sealed.

In all cases, law enforcement would still have access to sealed records.

Under the legislation, people with sealed records would not have to disclose their criminal histories.

“More than one-third of the commonwealth’s working-age citizens are estimated to have criminal records. Many have only minor offenses, such as misdemeanors, while others simply have arrests without conviction,” said State Sen. Scott Wagner (R., York), a principal sponsor of the bill. “As a business owner, I understand how this can be a barrier to employment and a better life. Removing that barrier will allow more Pennsylvanians to live as productive citizens.”

Also sponsoring the bill was State Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia), who said, “In our fight for criminal-justice reform, we’ve taken a great stride toward restoring the full benefit of citizenship to individuals with criminal backgrounds.”

One of Dietrich’s legal clients, a 53-year-old supermarket cashier, couldn’t have been more excited. “If this passes, it’ll make a huge difference in my life. Every time I’ve tried to better myself, I’ve gone around in circles.” The client wants to keep her name out of the media, because, if the bill becomes law, her records — for first-degree misdemeanors in 1986 and a second-degree misdemeanor in 1998 — will be sealed.

In 1986, when she was in her early 20s, she got a ride from an acquaintance on her first day working at the John Wanamaker store in King of Prussia. It turns out that he had stolen merchandise from J.C. Penney, she said. She wound up with first-degree misdemeanor convictions for retail theft and receiving stolen property. In 1998, she was convicted for leaving the scene of an accident, a fender-bender, in which no one was hurt. “I was scared,” she said, because she didn’t have insurance documents.

Ever since 1986, she said, she has been unable to get jobs that paid well. She earned certificates in medical billing and certified nursing, but her record cost her permanent work in both fields. “It held me back.”

How are employers reacting? The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia did not take a position, legislative director Liz Ferry said.

Because there was no clear consensus among its Pennsylvania members, the National Federation of Independent Business “did not weigh into this debate,” the organization’s state director, Kevin Shivers, wrote in an email. “Our members have raised concerns about the difficulty they have finding qualified workers. Criminal histories was not cited as a primary reason. But if this legislation helps to connect reformed citizens with job opportunities, then it seems like it could be a win-win.”

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