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Sealing the criminal records of more former offenders is the right move for Pa. | Editorial

It's time for state lawmakers to expand a program that would keep the records of formerly incarcerated people out of public view.

During a Fourth of July weekend celebration last year, Thomas Stintsman (front left) thanks Gov. Tom Wolf for signing the "Clean Slate" law, which allows for certain criminal records to be sealed.
During a Fourth of July weekend celebration last year, Thomas Stintsman (front left) thanks Gov. Tom Wolf for signing the "Clean Slate" law, which allows for certain criminal records to be sealed.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

For too many Pennsylvanians, a criminal record from decades ago can be the primary obstacle separating them from a job, a livelihood, and a chance at a fresh start.

While those released from prison, probation, and parole are judged to have paid their debt to society upon the completion of their sentences, the social and economic consequences of having a record of criminal convictions can linger for the rest of their lives. Background checks can lead to lost job opportunities, denial of housing, and other serious consequences.

The difficulty of living life after a conviction harms not only returning citizens but their families and communities as well. It is demoralizing for formerly incarcerated people to know so many of the doors that someone needs to live their version of the American dream are closed. It is no surprise that, faced with a world that will not give them adequate work or housing, 67% of returning citizens reoffend within a year.

In recognition of these challenges, Pennsylvania became a pioneer in 2018 by passing the nation’s first Clean Slate law, which automatically sealed some government records, keeping them from public view. Community Legal Services says the law has already sealed 40 million cases and helped more than 1.2 million people. While initially Pennsylvania stood alone, today there are 42 states that offer similar relief, and the list has consistently grown.

» READ MORE: Expanding Clean Slate legislation will help people in need

Still, while it represented an essential first step and a pragmatic compromise on behalf of advocates, Clean Slate didn’t include everyone who could have benefited from the program. Many nonviolent offenders who had served their time were not included in the bill that created the program, including those convicted of possessing just enough marijuana to warrant a felony prosecution. Under current Clean Slate regulations, someone convicted of stealing at least $2,000 worth of merchandise, the threshold that triggers felony theft charges, was not eligible for inclusion in the program.

That’s why it is important to pass what advocates are calling Clean Slate 3.0, a proposal that would allow Pennsylvania to join 37 states that offer the sealing of felony records in limited, clearly defined cases. Under Clean Slate 3.0, drug convictions would be sealed automatically, just as misdemeanors are handled today, while felony property crimes, such as theft or fraud, would be subject to a petition process. This would allow more of Pennsylvania’s returning citizens to rejoin the workforce and avoid reoffending.

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Take, for example, the story of Donna Gathright, an advocate for Clean Slate, founder of the Female Offenders Re-Entry Program, and a former offender herself. Gathright did something that’s currently legal in New Jersey and 17 other states: She sold marijuana. Not only that, she sold enough to qualify for felony charges, despite the fact that she was not armed, had no prior convictions, and was a single mother with two young children. If the expanded Clean Slate bill passes this session, Gathright’s record would be one among many that would be permanently sealed.

While Pennsylvania′s first-in-the-nation Clean Slate law has already helped many, it offered no relief for others looking for an opportunity to reboot their lives. Now is the time for the commonwealth to join 37 other states in allowing the sealing of nonviolent felony records.