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Second chances for nonviolent offenders

A bill under consideration in Harrisburg would give more of the state's ex-offenders a clean slate and a needed second chance to become productive citizens.

Expected to be brought to a vote early next year, the bill would allow records of convictions for low-level offenses — such as shoplifting, check fraud, drug possession, and other nonviolent misdemeanors — to be expunged.

The measure would allow a judge to expunge records of third-degree convictions for those who have gone arrest-free for at least seven years. Second-degree offenses committed by those under 25 could be expunged after 10 years without an arrest. While some advocates want lawmakers to go further by removing that age restriction — a potential weakness in the bill — it would still be a welcome and significant step in the right direction.

Under current law, criminal convictions can generally be expunged only once a person reaches the age of 70 and has not been arrested for at least 10 years. Convictions for minor crimes can therefore attach to law-abiding ex-offenders for decades, like scarlet letters.

Such virtually permanent blemishes can make it nearly impossible for people to find jobs, enroll in college, or join the military. And that can encourage a cycle of repeat offenses, trapping people in a criminal justice system that never marks their debt to society as paid in full.

Merciful measures like this are particularly justified given the alarming proportion of Americans who are encountering the justice system at a young age. One recent study found that almost a third of Americans have been arrested for something other than a minor traffic violation by the age of 23.

The study, based on data collected by the federal government's National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, found that arrests commonly occurred in late adolescence and early adulthood, and then became less likely as the youths surveyed entered their 20s. That helps make the case for giving another chance to people who made mistakes but have avoided subsequent brushes with the law.

Harrisburg has seen years of unsuccessful efforts to reduce recidivism and save the state money by making it easier to expunge records of minor crimes. This time around, though, the effort has the bipartisan support it deserves. Perhaps the new year will bring a new chance for more Pennsylvanians who have gotten their lives back on track.