Lancaster County Courthouse

Lancaster County Courthouse

THE ISSUE

Pennsylvania’s new Clean Slate Law, which went into effect in late December, allows state residents with decade-old, low-level offenses to petition to have those records sealed, effectively giving them a “clean” record. Jeff Hawkes, Hurubie Meko and Heather Stauffer reported in last weekend’s Sunday LNP that the second phase of the law will commence June 28, when courts begin automatically sealing records in eligible cases. About 700 people statewide petitioned to have their records sealed under the new law during the first week it was in effect, Gov. Tom Wolf said.

We should be supportive of reasonable second chances. We believe that low-level offenses that are a decade or more old shouldn’t unduly hinder someone’s prospects for employment or housing opportunities. Those kind of barriers are not reasonable.

And thus we applaud those in Harrisburg for passing (nearly unanimously) and enacting the My Clean Slate program. It was the right thing to do for Pennsylvanians. We are the first state to pass such a law and may serve as a model for others.

“I encourage anyone with a nonviolent criminal record to see if they are eligible for this opportunity,” Rep. Sheryl Delozier, a Republican from Cumberland County who authored the law, said in a statement. “A minor mistake more than a decade ago should not keep someone from obtaining employment or renting an apartment. I am pleased to ... (help) make Pennsylvania a leader in the movement to erase a minor indiscretion from a person’s record.”

LNP’s reporters took an in-depth and helpful look at the new program last Sunday. Here is a short overview:

— An individual with old misdemeanors can complete a Petition for Order for Limited Access, a one-page form available at the Self-Help Center at the county courthouse and online at www.pacourts.us/forms. Specifically, “non-violent first-degree misdemeanors and most simple assault convictions (are) eligible for sealing, if the individual has not been convicted for ten years and if no fines and costs are owed,” Sharon Dietrich, legislation director for Community Legal Services, said in a news release from the governor’s office.

— If the offense took place in Lancaster County, the completed petition goes to the Clerk of Courts at the Lancaster County Courthouse. There’s a $137 fee.

— Copies of the petition are sent to the judge who imposed sentencing and to the district attorney’s office. The DA has 30 days to challenge the petition and call for a hearing before a judge.

— If there is no objection, the Clerk of Courts Office marks its record of the conviction: “Sealed. Not open for public inspection.” Other law enforcement agencies are also prohibited from sharing the records.

Toppling barriers

While this program is still in the early stages of being rolled out — as Wolf himself states, “as with any new law, implementation can be complicated and somewhat difficult to understand” — we like that it has the potential to provide tangible help for former offenders. But, crucially, it also has safeguards in place to prevent misuse or misrepresentation by petitioners.

Steve Gumm, the executive director of the Lancaster Bar Association, told LNP that the association is “very happy with the law’s passage” and believes it will help to break down unnecessary barriers for some.

Tara Loew, who works at Lancaster CareerLink’s Re-Entry Services, told LNP that many employers ask about misdemeanor convictions. A retail theft charge, in particular, can be “extremely limiting” for job-seekers. So she expects this law to positively impact those who qualify to have their records sealed.

The law allows job applicants questioned about sealed records to answer as if the offense did not occur, one local attorney told LNP.

We agree with the view that the Clean Slate Law could also be a minor boon for local employers. Tom Baldrige, president and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber, told LNP he believes businesses are generally supportive of it.

“No one is looking for additional barriers to hiring people,” Baldrige said. “There are companies that are literally turning down business opportunities because they don’t have the workers, and that is relatively widespread.”

Meanwhile, the law could also help former offenders find housing more easily. Most landlords, understandably and reasonably, do background checks as part of their screening process. Past criminal offenses can be a barrier to securing affordable housing, Michael F. McKenna of Tabor Community Services told LNP. We, and many others, think that’s an unreasonable impediment for those with low-level misdemeanors more than a decade old.

Those who successfully go through the Clean Slate process will no longer have to declare a criminal offense on housing applications.

Improved job opportunities. Improved housing opportunities. All of this ties back together into making Lancaster County — and other Pennsylvania communities — stronger.

Full-time employment and quality housing help individuals and families thrive and, in turn, contribute to the local economy. That makes for safer, stronger neighborhoods. And it can also help to reduce recidivism.

“If someone can have a job, they are tying themselves to the community,” District Attorney Craig Stedman told LNP. “That’s a great indicator that the person is less likely to commit crime.”

“Citizens who have paid their debt to society and proven their rehabilitation can truly re-integrate into their communities,” added Democratic state Sen. Anthony H. Williams of Philadelphia — a Franklin & Marshall graduate — in a news release.

Congress recently passed, and President Donald Trump signed into law, The First Step Act, which seeks to make federal sentencing fairer.

The Clean Slate Act is another positive step, here in Pennsylvania, toward ensuring that entire lives aren’t ruined by a single bad choice. It’s good for communities when people get a second chance.