“This is a jobs bill,” says Pennsylvania State Representative Jordan Harris. “This will help many of our citizens get not a handout, but a hand back into society.”
Senate Bill 166, signed Tuesday morning by Governor Tom Wolf, creates a pathway whereby those with non-violent criminal histories can keep their records away from public view. Sponsored by Senator Stewart Greenleaf, along with 17 co-sponsors, the bill allows individuals to petition the court for “an order of limited access” for second- and third-degree misdemeanors, which would prohibit availability to employers while still being accessible to law enforcement.
“When resources are scarce, we have to make tough decisions,” Harris says. “Our citizens deserve a second chance because it makes fiscal sense. My hope is that this is just the beginning, and not the end, for criminal justice reform.”
Harris says the technical expungement will help to reduce recidivism, often a result of those with criminal histories’ inability to obtain employment. Greenleaf agrees.
“A low-level misdemeanor in one’s past is often a barrier when seeking employment, long after they have completed their sentence,” Greenleaf says. “Getting people back to work is not only the right thing to do, but it also decreases the chances that they will commit another crime.”
The bill allows any person to petition the court 10 years after the final disposition of criminal charges, whether it be the end of the case or the end of incarceration, whichever is later, in order to have the record sealed from release. Neither the courts nor their administrative offices would then be permitted to release information related not only to the conviction, but also to the arrest, indictment or other investigative information. First-degree misdemeanors as well as more serious criminal charges are excepted from the order for limited access. Three years must have passed since the date of arrest, no additional convictions during that time period may be added, and no new charges may be “in process.”
“By giving someone a blemish on their record, it keeps someone from getting a job. It might even keep them from getting into college, or a school,” says Governor Tom Wolf. “This bill allows a judge to seal the criminal record of someone who was charged with a truly minor misdemeanor, was clean for seven to ten years, and has been duly judged worthy by a representative of the legal system to be ‘clean.’ This is good for Pennsylvania.”
“Clearly, it’s good for the individual who is having the record sealed, but it’s also good for their families,” Wolf says. “Too often, we allow a minor offense, or the charge of a minor offense, at an early stage of life to ruin families.”
“It’s good for companies who hire people with this misdemeanor in their background,” Wolf says. “At my company, I gave second chances, and it did two things for me: It broadened the potential talent pool I could hire from. It also gave me some really good employees because so often the thing they were charged with was truly something irrelevant to what I was hiring them to do in my company.”
“Are we surprised that people recidivate when they get out of prison and they can’t get a job and they can’t get education,” Greenleaf asks. “There is a federal study that recently said there are about 550-some obstacles in your life if you are convicted of a crime in Pennsylvania: Not getting educational funding; not getting loans; not getting housing; not getting jobs.”
“This will also take the burden off the Pardons Board,” Greenleaf says. “I have been hearing, over the years, that half their case load is associated with people who are trying to get an expungement on a situation such as disorderly conduct. This bill will take care of that.”
“It’s all about giving people an opportunity to reintegrate into our society,” says Greenleaf. “It will save us money, ultimately, because they won’t become involved in the criminal process again since they have all the opportunities.”
Harris says the bill is something he had hoped for since coming to Harrisburg in 2012.
“Every day, in my District Office, we have people coming in who want to become gainfully employed. Sadly, many of them have found themselves on the wrong side of the law, and, until today, there was no pathway for redemption,” Harris says. “Many of them were locked out of opportunities they wanted to take.”
“It just makes fiscal sense,” Harris says. “Just think, if we reduce the size of the budget for the Department of Corrections, just think how many young people we could send to college. Just think how many would get a quality education in Philadelphia, Allentown, Harrisburg, Reading. That’s the pathway we should be working on.”
The bi-partisan bill resulted from compromise between the Senate and House, with the support of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, law enforcement and the American Civil Liberties Union. Representative Ron Marsico crafted an amendment in the House which allowed, Harris says, “a good bill that all sides agreed to.”
According to statistics provided by Governor Wolf’s office, between 70 and 100 million Americans, “as many as one in three American adults, have some type of criminal record. A recent report estimated that between 33 and 36.5 million children — nearly half of all American children — have at least one parent with a criminal record.”
Pennsylvania joins an estimated 27 states which allow some misdemeanor or felony convictions to be expunged or sealed.
“This Act allows certain records to be sealed, meaning law enforcement and state licensing agencies will continue to have access to these records, but those records will no longer be an impediment for employment or housing,” Wolf says.
“This is a valuable first step,” Harris says. “I look forward to continuing to work toward allowing Pennsylvanians who have made past mistakes a second chance to contribute to their communities and neighborhoods in a positive way.”
By Nancy Hart