Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, speaks during a press conference at the Capitol in Harrisburg on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. (Capital-Star photo by Marley Parish)
Gina Davis is more than her criminal record.
In the nearly three decades since she was arrested for possessing marijuanna and cocaine — and charged with intent to deliver the drugs — Davis has raised a family, been employed, earned multiple degrees, and obtained other certifications. She paid her restitution and completed 11 months of probation.
But her criminal record continues to show up in job interviews and applications. It has lingered, showing up as a “form of PTSD” every time she has to revisit it — despite her accomplishments since the arrest.
To advocate for change, Davis outlined the arrest and the barriers created by a criminal record before lawmakers on Tuesday during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on legislation that would expand Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate law, passed in 2018 and last updated in 2019.
It’s the first law of its kind in the United States and inspired similar legislation in Utah, Michigan, Connecticut, Delaware, Oklahoma, and Colorado.
The existing statute automatically shields criminal history for criminal and summary records — and non-conviction records — from public view when an individual is free from conviction of offenses punishable by a year or more in prison and has completed all court-ordered obligations for 10 years. Legal fines and fees also must be paid in full.
The records, however, will not be expunged and are still accessible to law enforcement and judicial officers.
Reps. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, and Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, have proposed expanding the law, citing testimony and evidence from law enforcement and community advocates that sealing some criminal records improves employment prospects and promotes crime-free communities.
“This is not a Republican issue. This is not a Democrat issue,” Delozier said at a press conference following the hearing. “This is a people issue. This is a jobs issue. This is an issue that our communities are stronger for.”
The most recent proposal — the third iteration of the law — would seal some low-level felonies after 10 crime-free years. Most drug felonies would be sealed automatically, not requiring those eligible to file a petition.
Their legislation has broad support from community organizations and law enforcement associations, including bipartisan backing in the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature.
Those supporters — the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, the Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services organization, Right on Crime, Faith and Freedom Coalition, Reentry Coalition of Franklin County, Americans for Tax Reform, and Justice Action Network — joined lawmakers to advocate for the legislation on Tuesday.
“To know that a person can change their life to get a bachelor’s degree, to get a master’s degree and could still be denied access to quality employment because of something they did almost 30 years ago,” Harris said, reflecting on remarks from Davis. “We’re talking about people with a proven track record of doing the right thing.”
Criminal records are the No. 1 problem people ask for employment assistance, Katie Svoboda-Kindle, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services, said. Often, the records are at least a decade old, she added.
“They don’t say anything about the person’s character,” Svoboda-Kindle said.
Advocates — citing an estimated $78 billion to $87 billion in annual losses due to unemployment or underemployment of those with criminal records — said that the legislation could help remove barriers to employment, education, and career advancement by sealing some records.
“More jobs equal less recidivism,” Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association Executive Director Greg Rowe said.
Employment creates a sense of stability, Rowe said — adding that it could help keep families together and set a good example for kids to see their parents go to work.
Alex Halper, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said that expanding the Clean Slate law could remove employment barriers and give people the confidence to reenter the workforce.
He added that Pennsylvania employers report that when they find out someone on their staff has a criminal record, “oftentimes it’s their best employee.”
“It’s the people they find the hardest working, the most dedicated, and the most grateful, oftentimes, for employment,” Halper said. “This makes sense for employers. It makes sense for Pennsylvania’s economy.”
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