If you have a criminal record in Pennsylvania, the Steelers want to help you clear it. The football team announced last week that it will be holding a March 26 clinic to help people understand new state laws and the process to seal or expunge past arrests and convictions. The expungement clinic will be hosted at the team’s stadium, Heinz Field, in partnership with state officials.
“In the digital era, even a minor record can be a life sentence to poverty, with nearly 9 in 10 employers, 4 in 5 landlords, and 3 in 5 colleges now using background checks to screen applicants’ criminal records,” states the Center for American Progress.
Expungement clinics can help people navigate what may be a complex or arcane process. They sometimes offer people other services, like voter registration, job training and employment assistance, or housing and healthcare support. Filter has previously reported on National Expungement Week, through which communities all over the US host various cannabis conviction expungement events.
Pennsylvania is the first state in the US to implement a “Clean Slate” automatic record-sealing law. Governor Tom Wolf (D) first signed this reform into law in 2018, and it took effect last June.
“Clean Slate uses technology to seal certain criminal records from public view,” states Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS). “Arrest records will be sealed after charges are dropped and some minor conviction records will be sealed after 10 years […] By June 27, 2020, over 30 million cases will be sealed, without the cost of filing petitions in court. That’s more than half of the charges in the court’s database.”
If you had a nonviolent offense that was committed at least 10 years ago, you are eligible. Misdemeanor charges that carried prison sentences shorter than two years will be sealed. All court fines have to be paid before the record is sealed. The Clean Slate law also applies to arrests and criminal charges that were dropped, or for people who were found not guilty by a court.
The eligible records are automatically sealed by the state, meaning people shouldn’t have to determine if they’re eligible, start the process, fill out any forms, or visit any courts or offices. This is unlike states such as Massachusetts, which allows for relief of some criminal records but puts the burden to do so on the individual.
Sealing a record shields it from employers, schools, or landlords. If you are asked during a job interview if you have ever had a criminal record—but that record was sealed—you can legitimately answer “No.” Certain employers can still access the record, if for example they are required by law to do a background check for a certain position.
But record-sealing is still a less comprehensive remedy than record expungement. Law enforcement and courts can still access a sealed record, while expungement actually destroys the public record of the offense.
Nationwide, 2020 is expected to bring further advances in automatic record-sealing legislation. Last year, Utah followed Pennsylvania to become the second state to sign a Clean Slate law, and that version takes effect this May. It also automates the record expungement process for mostly low-level crimes and some misdemeanor crimes. An estimated 30,000 cases will be eligible for expungement each year. The state judiciary will identify eligible cases and request that public safety officials expunge them.
Liberal California doesn’t normally take its cues from the deep-red Utah, but in October, California became the third state to pass a Clean Slate law after Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 1076. It will automatically clear some low-level offenses and arrests, but only those that occur after January 1, 2021. The state clarifies online that it does not offer “true expungement” under law.
In December, Pennsylvania’s neighbor, New Jersey, became the fourth state to pass a Clean Slate bill. It automatically expunges nonviolent offenses that were committed at least 10 years ago. It also seals low-level marijuana convictions upon the disposition of a case.
Jersey’s law also calls for a task force and $15 million in funding to create the technology and infrastructure to realize these promises. It eliminates filing fees for expungements and creates an electronic online filing system. The law takes full effect in June; the marijuana provisions alone may affect over a million New Jersey residents.
The momentum is continuing. On February 19, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont (D) shopped his own proposed clean slate bill at a Voices of Justice event in Hartford. The proposal would automatically expunge low-level misdemeanors seven years after the date of conviction, if there are no other crimes committed. But advocates are also pushing Lamont to support a more expansive proposal that would expunge felonies and shorten the amount of time before records can be expunged.
On the national level, Representatives Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) and Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA) introduced the federal Clean Slate Act last April. This would automatically seal federal records for low-level nonviolent drug charges and all nonviolent marijuana-law violations.
It remains to be seen what further progress states and the federal government will make on this issue in 2020. But having a six-time Super Bowl champion football team support this movement will certainly help to spread the word.