Each year, Pennsylvania courts seal thousands of criminal and arrest records, closing them off from public view.
That number is about to get a lot bigger.
On Friday, more than 30 million criminal records became eligible for automatic sealing under Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate law — a landmark piece of legislation that applies to low-level misdemeanors, summary offenses, and charges that didn’t result in convictions.
Supporters say it will unlock the potential of thousands of Pennsylvanians who face housing and employment discrimination due to their criminal records. And since it automates the process, people will no longer have to hire a lawyer and go to court to put their past behind them.
“We will be freeing thousands of people from the handcuffs of history,” Gov. Tom Wolf said at a press conference Friday, exactly one year after he signed the bill into law. “These are people who couldn’t shake the stigma of making a mistake because our faulty criminal justice system didn’t allow them to.”
Wolf celebrated the enactment of Clean Slate outside the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg, where he was joined by lawmakers, criminal justice reform advocates, and Pennsylvanians who are waiting to have their records sealed.
One of those Pennsylvanians was 29-year-old Keith, who lives in suburban Harrisburg. More than a decade ago, Keith incurred a trio of low-level charges that now prevent him from getting professional licenses.
On Friday, he said that’s made it hard for him to advance his career in the insurance industry. But as soon as those charges are sealed, “I can apply for anything I want,” Keith said.
“I’m just looking forward to new opportunities,” he added.
Pennsylvania’s Legislature passed the Clean Slate law in 2018 with overwhelming bipartisan support. It’s the first law of its kind in the country, and has inspired similar legislation in Utah and California, Katie Svoboda-Kindle, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, said.
“It’s a completely revolutionary law,” Svoboda-Kindle said. “The country has never seen something on this scale and of this kind.”
Under Clean Slate, a computer program run by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts will automatically seal summary offenses and non-violent misdemeanor charges — such as shoplifting, prostitution, and DUI charges — for people who don’t reoffend for 10 years.
It will immediately erase charges that are dropped or that don’t result in convictions.
Right now, more than 30 million charges in the Pennsylvania Courts’ database qualify for automatic sealing under Clean Slate.
They include 23 million charges that didn’t result in convictions, seven million summary offenses, and 84,000 non-violent misdemeanors, said Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, who sponsored the Clean Slate legislation with Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia.
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts will seal more than 2.5 million charges a month to get through the backlog in the next year, DeLozier said Friday.
Once a record is sealed, it’s only visible to law enforcement. Landlords, employers, and other members of the public won’t be able to see them.
One in three Americans has a criminal record. But many people don’t know they can have their record sealed, or can’t afford to hire a lawyer to guide them through the process, Svoboda-Kindle said.
For many people, an expungement is all that’s standing in the way of stable employment or housing.
“A criminal record holds you back so much,” Svoboda-Kindle said. “Once they get their records cleared, it’s like the world is their oyster. They can pursue opportunities they were rejected from or were too fearful to pursue.”
Pennsylvanians can find out if their record is eligible to be sealed by visiting MyCleanSlatePa.com.