Gov. Tom Wolf signs bill Tuesday permitting ex-offenders to petition courts to seal records
of old, low-level offenses. The measure is intended to remove barriers to jobs, housing and
other opportunities for people who have successfully reformed their lives.
One of life’s reset buttons may soon get a little more accessible for many Pennsylvanians with criminal records.
Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill Tuesday that will let ex-offenders who have stayed out of trouble for 10 years after a conviction for most second- or third-degree misdemeanors petition courts to have records of the old crime sealed.
The change would essentially remove the convictions from employers’ background checks, school admissions or loan applications, with the intent of opening more doors to those trying to build better lives for themselves.
“Too many first-time and low-level offenders are serving their time and unable to improve their lives after leaving the system because they have a criminal record,” Wolf said. “They are too likely then to return to the system.
“We must do everything we can to break this cycle,” Wolf continued. “It is robbing too many of their lives, and it is costing taxpayers far too much.”
Advocates for ex-offenders said the measure, Senate Bill 166, is the single-best thing policy-makers could do for their clients.
Until now, crime records could only be expunged for summary offenses, misdemeanors after a person had reached age 70 with 10 years since the last arrest, and a few other crimes like underage drinking.
Beyond that, residents seeking to clear their name had to make appeals to the state Board of Pardons.
Giving people an easier path to clear records of misdemeanors makes this a “jobs bill,” said Rep. Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia Democrat who championed the issue in the state House of Representatives.
“You can’t expect a person to change their life if you’re not giving them the tools to do that… Until today, there was no pathway to redemption.”
Applicants would have to file a petition to the court of record where the offense occurred, and pay a $132 fee. The local district attorney’s office would also be given thirty days to review and contest the application.
If no objections were registered, the sealing order could be issued without a formal hearing.
The biggest categories captured by the expansion would include crimes like driving while under the influence of alcohol and possession of a small amount of marijuana, said Sharon Dietrich, litigation director for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
But it would also include crimes like sexting, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct and certain retail thefts.
The bill, by sealing those past offenses from the public record, still ensures that the records remain available and accessible to law enforcement or state licensing agencies.
That was a compromise supporters said they were happy to accept because they don’t anticipate most beneficiaries of the change to be dealing with future arrests.
“Really, for most people the bigger issues are not: ‘Oh, how can I deal with the criminal justice system next time I go back?'” Dietrich said, because they’ve already shown the capacity to move forward with their lives.
“They’re concern is, ‘How can I get a job? How can I get a house? How can I go to school?’ So that, to us, feels like a totally fair trade.”
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