At a time when the federal government is spending billions of dollars bailing out banks, manufacturers and foreign governments, Pennsylvania should take the opportunity to give thousands of Pennsylvanians a second chance by modernizing the way it treats criminal records. State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, has introduced Senate Bill 1220 to do just that.
The process by which people can apply to a court to have a criminal record removed from public view, called expungement, is currently not available to people convicted of even the lowest level of misdemeanors. This leaves tens of thousands of people branded for life as criminals in Pennsylvania.
If SB 1220 is enacted, Pennsylvania will join a growing list of states that have modernized their laws to reduce the period during which the consequences of a criminal record can continue to prejudice people convicted of low-level offenses. The bill won unanimous support in committee on Sept. 27, and Sen. Solobay said he is hoping the bill will soon win approval from the full Senate.
SB 1220 would allow people who were convicted of second- or third-degree misdemeanors to have those records expunged after a certain period. For third-degree misdemeanor convictions, the required waiting period without arrests or convictions would be seven years. For second-degree misdemeanors, that waiting period would be increased to 10 years.
Expungent reform would benefit more than just former offenders. If SB 1220 is enacted, Pennsylvania should see reductions in crime and unemployment rates, which would lead to taxpayers paying less to fund welfare and correctional programs. Studies consistently show that individuals who are without employment or a connection to their communities are far more likely to commit criminal offenses -- something that can probably be seen in Pennsylvania's recidivism rate of 55 percent in the first five years, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
A study by the Society for Human Resource Management shows that more than 80 percent of employers conduct background checks on job applicants. Not only do employers conduct background checks, so too do a rapidly growing number of landlords. The end result of these practices is that many people with criminal records -- no matter how long ago they were acquired -- find it very difficult to secure the necessities of life such as a job and housing.
N. White of Yeadon, Pa., is one of thousands of people who would benefit from this proposed law. He was convicted in 2003 at the age of 20 for stealing a video game. He pled guilty and successfully completed his probation. Since then, he not only has remained law-abiding, but is currently pursuing an accelerated program to earn his bachelor's degree in network engineering. Despite his education and nearly 10 years of being a model citizen, Mr. White is subject to continued discrimination because of his offense from 2003. "I feel like I have to work three times as hard as anyone else because of my misdemeanor," he said.
When he tried to enlist in the military in January 2011, Mr. White was informed by his recruiter that because of his misdemeanor, he would need a waiver to join. Unfortunately for him, a freeze had just been instituted on the number of available waivers that could be issued and he was turned down.
Mr. White recently applied for a job as a personal care assistant at a private care facility assisting the handicapped and the elderly. The employer told Mr. White that he wanted to give him the job; however, state law prohibits hiring anyone with a misdemeanor theft conviction to fill that type of position, without regard to the amount of time a person has since remained law-abiding.
With employers denying employment based on convictions from a decade ago, and no expungement law to help those with just misdemeanor convictions, the potential financial cost to Pennsylvania could be huge. According to the state Department of Corrections, the annual cost to incarcerate one inmate is more than $32,000 and inmate populations have increased by 25 percent over the last seven years. Reversing or even slowing the rate of increase would produce significant financial savings.
However, there are certain criminal records that the public should be able to access. SB 1220 recognizes this by preserving the records of violent and repeat offenders. Additionally, certain other offenses, such as indecent assault or crimes involving abuse of animals, would likewise be ineligible for expungement.
With or without the amendment, SB 1220 will help all people in Pennsylvania by allowing many former offenders to make the most of their lives by leaving the effects of a past mistake where they belong -- in the past.
Mathew K. Higbee is a lawyer and chairman of the Foundation for Continuing Justice .