Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, heralds the Clean Slate Law on the day it took effect (Capital-Star file photo).
By Alex Halper
Five years ago, Pennsylvania made history. We became the first state in the country to pass Clean Slate legislation, which automatically seals old criminal records for certain low-level offenders who remain crime-free for a set period of time.
The bill garnered overwhelming bipartisan support and was lauded by advocates and employers as revolutionary. Since its implementation, Clean Slate has benefitted more than 1.2 million of our neighbors. Following Pennsylvania’s lead, nearly a dozen states across the country have passed their own automatic record sealing laws since 2018.
Now, we have the opportunity to expand Clean Slate’s reach and create more second chances for Pennsylvanians. House Bill 689 (Clean Slate 3.0) would amend our existing Clean Slate law to also extend to certain low-level, non-violent drug felonies (excluding dealing or trafficking), bringing the Commonwealth in line with the evidence-based policies and best practices of 37 other states that allow for some form of felony clearing.
It would also allow more individuals to individually petition to have their records sealed, shorten the waiting period for misdemeanors, and incorporate key liability protections for employers, addressing legitimate concerns raised by the business community.
It’s impossible to overstate how impactful these changes would be. Over 70 million Americans – nearly one in three U.S. adults – have some form of an old criminal record. People with records face barriers to employment, housing, education, and opportunity. These barriers can act as permanent punishments and stand in contrast to the evidence that people’s behavior changes over time.
While record clearing processes exist across the country, they are often costly and onerous. Only five percent of eligible individuals will ever even apply to have their records sealed due to a lack of access, knowledge, and funds required. This traps individuals with old criminal records in a vicious cycle of poverty, disproportionately affecting people of color and resulting in severely limited employment opportunities.
This doesn’t just harm the individual, but their families, too. Recent research demonstrates that 40 percent of children exposed to the criminal justice system through a caregiver will face multiple adverse child development outcomes as a result. House Bill 689 would not only help give otherwise law-abiding adults a second chance – it would give millions of our Commonwealth’s children an invaluable opportunity to break this cycle and lead safer, healthier lives in the future.
Expanding Clean Slate would also help strengthen Pennsylvania’s economy. On the whole, underemployment of formerly incarcerated people costs the U.S. economy as much as $87 billion in GDP every year. Moreover, employers who hire justice-impacted workers consistently report that their quality of work and contributions are either on par with or better than their peers, with notably lower turnover rates.
Pennsylvania’s businesses are desperate for committed and skilled employees. Even with record-low unemployment, employers across the Commonwealth still face an unprecedented hiring shortage. Data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce shows that Pennsylvania is suffering from a “severe” worker shortage, with only 74 available workers for every 100 open jobs. Businesses need access to a new talent pool.
Expanding record clearance will help facilitate employment, putting more money in the pockets of consumers and communities, improving business prospects, and reducing reliance on taxpayer aid. It also gives our neighbors and their families a well-deserved second chance after their debt to society has been repaid.
Advocates and direct beneficiaries of Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate law report that this policy encourages individuals to reenter the workforce, look for employment, and secure jobs and promotions.
Employment is one of the best ways to reduce recidivism, and by helping these individuals reenter the workforce, we can make our communities stronger in the process.
It is therefore no surprise that automatic record sealing has attracted a broad coalition of support – from Chambers of Commerce to District Attorneys’ Associations – and is backed by 70 percent of voters in the Commonwealth.
An expansion bill sponsored by Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, recently passed out of the House Judiciary Committee with a unanimous vote, offers an encouraging preview of the broad bipartisan support we hope members of the General Assembly will reiterate over the coming weeks and months.
To that end, we urge members of the Legislature to support the expansion of our Clean Slate law, which will grant more Pennsylvanians a well-deserved second chance and expand our talent pool at the same time.
Alex Halper is Vice President of Government Affairs at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. He writes from Harrisburg.
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