POLITICS

This State Might Give Nonviolent Criminal Offenders A Second Chance

The Clean Slate Act would give Pennsylvanians an opportunity to have their records sealed.

WASHINGTON -- “Here comes 5-0” was the only thing Ronald Lewis said one night in 2004 as his brother was selling drugs.  

Being the lookout was Lewis’ only role, but both he and his brother were arrested. Lewis was charged with drugs and possession. Earlier that year, he had been caught trying to steal a purse from Neiman Marcus.

“Two misdemeanors. I did no jail time, and my probation was terminated early,” Lewis, a Philadelphia resident, wrote in a 2014 blog post for Talk Poverty. “I’ve had no incidents at all since then.”

Despite his building engineering license and aspirations to start his own business, Lewis had a hard time finding and holding down a job because of these criminal offenses.

“There have been numerous times when the background check stopped me from getting a job. The employer says, ‘You’ll be great. Your skill level is exactly what we are looking for.’ But then there’s that question,” Lewis writes. “It’s like the elephant in the room -- I hate that question: ‘Do you have anything on your background?’ And when you tell them, they’re gone.”

But thanks to a new bipartisan bill, almost 3 million Pennsylvanians like Lewis will be provided a second chance.

The Clean Slate Act, introduced in the state legislature on Wednesday, is the first of its kind. All nonviolent minor offenses on someone’s criminal record will be automatically sealed after the individual has remained crime-free for a set amount of time.

In February, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) signed a bill amending the state’s criminal code so people who have finished their prison sentences and have not been arrested for seven to 10 years could petition the courts to have non-violent misdemeanor convictions sealed. But the Clean Slate Act will allow people to forgo the long process of petitioning the courts to expunge each offense.

“The idea behind the bill is that having even a minor criminal record -- even a misdemeanor or an arrest that never even led to a conviction -- can be effectively a life sentence to poverty for the person with the record. And also for their children and their families because it can stand in the way of employment, housing, education, training and more,” Rebecca Vallas, managing director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, told The Huffington Post.

The idea behind the bill is that having even a minor criminal record ... can be effectively a life sentence to poverty for the person with the record. Rebecca Vallas, of the Center for American Progress

Over 11 million people were arrested in 2012, according to the most recent FBI crime statistics. Many people who are arrested have a hard time being competitive in the job market, getting fair and safe housing, taking out loans and obtaining job training -- regardless of whether they are convicted.

This burden falls especially hard on black people and Latinos, Vallas said.

“Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system -- and not just when it comes to overrepresentation in our nation’s prisons and jails,” she said. “They’re also substantially more likely to be arrested at some point in their lives and even having any lifetime arrests on your record can hold you back.”

In 2014, researchers at the University of South Carolina discovered that over 40 percent of men had been arrested at least once by the age of 23 after tracking a randomly selected group of young adults via Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Black people were most likely to be arrested (49 percent) with Hispanics coming in a close second (44 percent) and whites falling third at 38 percent. They also found that 47 percent of those arrested had never been convicted and, in over 25 percent of cases, people were not formally charged.

“This bill is going to be extremely beneficial to all Pennsylvanians, but especially to communities of color who really have borne much more of the brunt of our nation’s failed experiment with mass incarceration and overcriminalization than anyone else,” Vallas said.  

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