The commonwealth should make it easier to expunge criminal records and give people a fresh start in life
November 13, 2016 12:00 AM
By Todd Spivak and Rebecca Canterbury
Pennsylvania offers virtually no relief for people to shed the stigma of a criminal record that denies them access to employment, housing and government benefits.
Fortunately, the commonwealth is taking a step in the right direction as a new law takes effect Monday that for the first time seals criminal records from public view for people convicted of some second- and third-degree misdemeanors, so long as they completed their punishments and stayed free from arrest for 10 years.
It’s an important law, but it does not go nearly far enough.
Historically, Pennsylvania has offered two legal pathways for concealing a criminal record.
First, you could petition the court for an expungement, which completely erases criminal information from public view. But expungements are offered in very limited cases, such as charges resulting in dismissal and convictions for low-level summary offenses such as public intoxication and speeding tickets.
Second, you could seek a pardon from the governor, which restores all rights lost due to a criminal conviction, including voting rights. But a governor’s pardon is hardly a viable option for most offenders, as the process can take years, cost many thousands of dollars in attorney fees and has a dismal success rate of less than 20 percent.
On average, fewer than 100 people receive a governor’s pardon in Pennsylvania each year, whereas more than 40,000 expungements are granted annually.
The new record-sealing law affords far less protection than a pardon or an expungement because the criminal information will remain accessible to law enforcement and state-licensed agencies, such as occupation boards and child-care facilities.
Moreover, the new law excludes all people convicted of felonies, as well as sexual and violent crimes.
Thus, Pennsylvania still offers no relief for people who, say, were convicted of assault for starting a bar fight at age 21 but served their sentence and went another 30 or 40 years without another arrest or incident.
The importance of second-chance reforms cannot be overstated.
Three million Pennsylvanians have a criminal record, comprising 30 percent of the adult population. They are parents of about half the state’s children.
A criminal record can have life-long collateral consequences, restricting access to the most basic rights and privileges, such as employment, housing, public benefits, bank loans, voting privileges, government contracts and child-custody rights.
Employment is considered the single most important influence on decreasing recidivism. Studies show that job applicants who reported having a criminal record were 50 percent less likely to receive a callback or job offer.
During the last five years, nearly half the states passed more than three dozen laws aimed at sealing or expunging criminal records so low-level offenders don’t continue to suffer for minor offenses, according to the Vera Institute for Justice.
Pennsylvania should follow the lead of other states that offer broader pathways for relief.
For instance, earlier this year Kentucky for the first time authorized expungement and restoration of voting rights for nonviolent felony convictions. Missouri and New Jersey significantly reduced waiting periods to expunge felony and misdemeanor convictions. New Jersey went so far as to ensure automatic and immediate expungement of non-conviction records.
By contrast, Pennsylvania requires people to petition the court, pay filing fees and wait about a year to erase a criminal record even though charges were dismissed or withdrawn. People who fail to seek expungement remain burdened by a criminal record that can significantly inhibit employment prospects.
Pennsylvania should join roughly half the states, as well as many major employers, such as Walmart, Starbucks and Facebook, that have adopted ban-the-box policies, which removes the conviction-history question on job applications and delays background-check inquires until later in the hiring process. Research indicates that employers are more willing to hire applicants after first examining their qualifications for the job.
The Pennsylvania Legislature is considering two bills that would further expand options for expungement and record-sealing. These so-called clean-slate bills would automatically and immediately seal non-conviction records such as withdrawals, dismissals and not-guilty verdicts. They would automatically seal records after 10 years for most misdemeanor convictions. They would eliminate the exception that allows occupational- and state-licensing boards to view sealed records.
In addition, the clean-slate bills would save money for taxpayers by reducing criminal-justice costs and increasing tax revenues as more people get back to work. More important, they would improve public safety by giving offenders a fresh start that enhances their prospects of finding employment and living crime-free lives.
Todd Spivak and Rebecca Canterbury, attorneys at Spivak Law Firm in Dormont, handle family law and criminal defense, including orders to expunge or limit access to criminal records.
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