A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial
Pennsylvania’s 2018 Clean Slate law has helped over a million people get a fresh start by sealing their criminal records a decade after a low-level offense. The state should bring the benefits of a second chance to thousands more Pennsylvanians, by expanding the range of offenses the law covers.
It now covers summary misdemeanors. House Bill 689 would expand eligibility to some non-violent felonies, including drug possession. It will not include dealing or trafficking.
The stigma of these convictions too often follows otherwise law-abiding citizens for the rest of their lives. Just as a person who successfully repays a debt and doesn’t incur another should not be marked for life as a profligate, a person who pays a debt to society for breaking the law and doesn’t commit another crime should not be marked as a criminal for life. Once he or she has fulfilled the conditions of the punishment, whether probation, fine or incarceration, the episode should be closed.
At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. But the stigma of punishment can last forever, especially in the age of the internet, when criminal records can be found online.
A broad array of interest groups supports it, from criminal justice reform organizations to the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
They all know how much the change would benefit people who without it will be blocked from becoming the productive citizens they could be. Prosecutors know they’re more likely to see small-time offenders in court again if they can’t move on with their careers because of their records. They also understand that a one-time low-level crime doesn’t mark a person’s character. Employers want more workers to be eligible for more jobs, without either side having to worry about criminal offenses from the distant past.
Pennsylvania’s 2018 law was the first of its kind in the U.S., and its success encouraged copycat measures in nine other states. Dozens more have versions pending in their legislatures.
Some states went beyond Harrisburg’s example and included minor nonviolent felonies, such as drug possession convictions, in the dragnet of mercy. This has proved so successful at bringing people back into the legitimate economy that even skeptics like Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, have changed their minds. Ms. Delozier is now a leading co-sponsor of the expansion bill, HB 689.
The House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the expanded Clean Slate law last week, but it was tabled in the full House. There’s no reason to delay further votes. As the committee’s unanimity showed, this is not a partisan issue. It’s a reform everyone should get behind.
Majority Leader Matthew Bradford, D-Montgomery, should move the bill, and Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, should shepherd it through the Senate as quickly as possible.
This measure should be an example of bipartisan cooperation for authentic criminal justice reform. Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians, and their families - and the commonwealth - stand to benefit from this second chance.