Historic Pennsylvania Law To Seal Millions Of Criminal Charges Automatically

Jun 28, 2019
Originally published on June 28, 2019 8:20 pm

Forty million — that's the number of criminal charges in Pennsylvania that will be eligible for automatic record sealing starting Friday under the state's Clean Slate law.

While law enforcement will still be able to pull up arrests and convictions, the public — including landlords and most employers — will not. They'll be hidden as if they never happened.

The law applies to non-convictions, summary offenses and most nonviolent misdemeanor convictions, including drunk driving, shoplifting and prostitution.

When Clean Slate first took effect in December, residents with those kinds of records needed to hire lawyers and go to court to get them sealed, as is the case in other states across the country. Starting Friday in Pennsylvania, the automation process can start once a judge signs off on a batch of eligible charges.

"It's the first day in the history of the United States that records will be sealed by automation. And it is quite possible that in the first week more cases will be sealed by automation than have ever been sealed in the entire history of the United States," says Sharon Dietrich, litigation director at Community Legal Services, the nonprofit that helped craft Clean Slate, which garnered overwhelming bipartisan support in the state's Republican-controlled legislature.

Non-convictions can be sealed after 60 days and convictions after a decade, as long as another crime has not been committed since. All court fines and fees also have to be paid in full.

"Once this is done, I just feel like a weight will be lifted off my shoulders," says Nichole, a mother in her early 30s from West Philadelphia. NPR has agreed to withhold her last name so as not to undermine her efforts to put her past behind her.

Nichole has a string of arrests so old she says she barely remembers the incidents, but one of them was for shoplifting about 15 years ago. She says she had just lost her job as a street canvasser to downsizing and had no money for food.

"I walked into a Wawa because I was hungry and started eating," she says.

Nichole spent a couple of nights in jail for stealing from the convenience store. The case was later dismissed due to lack of evidence, but the arrest remained on her record — just like the others she racked up over the next two years.

Nichole's record meant she couldn't fulfill her dream of becoming a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department. That hurt, but she says the real punch was to her self-esteem. She felt like a second-class citizen, despite the fact she was never convicted of a crime.

"Even though we don't have caste and social class, we really do. So knowing that my background will be sealed ... it's just like looking at a lens and it's going to become clear," she says.

Nichole will be one of the first Pennsylvania residents to have their criminal records automatically sealed. Millions of cases will follow.

Court administrators expect it to take at least the next year to seal the state's stockpile of eligible criminal records, but more will qualify each month.

Other states have similar measures on the books, but only Pennsylvania's provides for automatic sealing.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Starting today, 40 million criminal charges in Pennsylvania will be eligible to be automatically sealed. Other states allow record sealing. They do it to help people with criminal records get jobs and housing, but the process can be tedious and expensive. The goal in Pennsylvania is to make it relatively painless. WHYY's Aaron Moselle explains how this one-of-a-kind process will work.

AARON MOSELLE, BYLINE: Pennsylvania's new Clean Slate law applies to people with three kinds of criminal records. One is if you were arrested and charged but never convicted of a crime. The next is nonviolent misdemeanor convictions, charges like shoplifting and prostitution. The third category is summary offenses, like harassment and disorderly conduct. When Clean Slate took effect in December, residents with these kinds of records needed to hire a lawyer to get them sealed.

SHARON DIETRICH: You'd prepare a petition, file it. You'd wait for a court date.

MOSELLE: Sharon Dietrich is a lead attorney at Community Legal Services, the nonprofit that helped craft the law.

DIETRICH: A DA would have to look at it. A judge would have to look at it. If the petition was granted, then a clerk would have to enter information and on and on.

MOSELLE: Dietrich says that process changes today.

DIETRICH: It is the first day in the history of the United States that records will be sealed by automation. And it is quite possible that that first week, more cases will be sealed by automation than have ever been sealed in the entire history of the United States.

MOSELLE: That's because automatic sealing is faster. Dietrich says that means eligible residents can get a second chance sooner, whether it's applying for the better-paying job they couldn't get before or the apartment they couldn't rent.

NICHOLE: Once this is done, I just feel like a weight will be lifted off my shoulders.

MOSELLE: Nichole is in her early 30s and lives in West Philly. We've agreed to withhold her last name to protect her privacy. Her record includes a string of arrests so old she says she can't remember most of the details. She knows one of them was for shoplifting about 15 years ago. Nichole says she had just lost her job to downsizing, and she didn't have enough money for food. So she headed to a convenience store.

NICHOLE: I walked into a Wawa because I was hungry, and I started eating.

MOSELLE: She spent a couple nights in jail. The case was later dismissed due to lack of evidence, but the arrest remained on her record, just like the other ones she racked up over the next two years. Her record meant she couldn't fulfill her dream of becoming a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department. That hurt, but she says the real punch was to her self-esteem. She felt like a second-class citizen.

NICHOLE: Even though we don't have castes and, like, social classes, we really do (laughter). So I think that knowing that my background will be sealed and, like, the record closed is just like looking through a lens and it's, like, going to become clearer.

MOSELLE: Nichole will be one of the first Pennsylvania residents to have their criminal records automatically sealed. Court administrators expect it to take a year to seal the state's stockpile of eligible criminal records, but more will qualify each month.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Moselle, in Philadelphia.

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