Pennsylvania “Clean Slate” is a Breakthrough for Justice Reform

Last week, landmark “Clean Slate” legislation to automatically seal the records of certain low-level offenders became law in Pennsylvania. Sponsored by Representative Sheryl Delozier, a Republican who represents part of Cumberland County, House Bill 1419 garnered broad bipartisan support in its passage through both chambers of the General Assembly and into its signing by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf.

The legislation will have the records of qualifying nonviolent misdemeanor offenders sealed after the offender has lived crime-free for a determined number of years following release. "Clean Slate" will help many returning citizens who want a second chance at living productive lives to find education, housing, and gainful employment. All of these are too frequently out of reach for former offenders due to the life-long burden of a small crime committed years ago.

Not only does this bill open up opportunities for reformed citizens, but it will grow the economy by increasing the labor force and allowing more citizens to contribute to the economy. Additionally, it will reduce crime and make communities safer by cutting back the number of former offenders who return to crime, or recidivate, as a result of a lack of opportunity.

Apart from its innovative policy approach that will dramatically aid returning citizen reentry to society, this Clean Slate legislation also utilizes innovative technology to reduce red tape and streamline the process for record sealing. This process starts with a court administrator at the central Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, or the AOPC, running an electronic database to pull eligible records for sealing. A person’s eligibility would depend on how long it has been since his or her last conviction and the severity of his or her crime.

After the records have been pulled, they are sent to the Pennsylvania State Police for 30 days for them to cross-reference the records, making sure no conflicts arise. The person is then notified through the mail that his or her past records will not show up on his or her background checks. The process set forth in the bill seals records within two months.

Clean Slate legislation is supported by a coalition of groups from all across the political spectrum, from the Center for American Progress on the left to FreedomWorks on the right. The coalition that united around this legislation doesn’t often agree on many points of policy, but this common sense reform that reduces crime, reduces government waste, and enhances the lives of all in society is cause for coming together in full support. Despite differing perspectives and political philosophies, their agreement on this policy is significant, and has drawn a spotlight to this bill.

Pennsylvania’s state legislature is by far the largest in the country and it is dominated by conservative Republicans — 33 of 50 in the Senate and 121 of 203 in the House. The executive branch of the state, however, is led by Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, who signed the Clean Slate bill into law last Thursday. The bill had over half of the Senate, Republicans and Democrats alike, signed on as co-sponsors.

Data shows that 90 percent of Republicans and 93 percent of Democrats in Pennsylvania agree on the Clean Slate policy of automatically sealing records of qualifying former offenders.

Last week, when Gov. Wolf was joined by Representatives, stakeholders, and advocacy groups for the signing of House Bill 1419 , the Clean Slate bill, it was a huge victory for the people of Pennsylvania, but it was also representative of more. This bill is the first of its kind in the nation, and will be looked to as a model for the rest of the country to follow. In fact, legislation is due to be introduced in a similar vein in Congress this year.

Of the legislation, Gov. Wolf stated, “I am proud to sign this legislation, which will make it easier for those who have interacted with the justice system to reduce the stigma they face when looking for employment and housing. Clean Slate passed in an overwhelmingly bipartisan manner and I want to thank the General Assembly and the many advocates and stakeholders who made this possible.”

Criminal justice reform is a special issue that allows individuals of all political ideologies to come together and actually get things done. Pennsylvania’s recent breakthrough success is a perfect example of this, and it is our hope that this success will be followed by similar reforms across the country as a result.

Quiana Haynes contributed to this blog post.