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Blue, red, urban, rural -- Pennsylvania voters back help for ex-offenders

Pennsylvanians -- Republicans, Democrats, Philadelphians, suburbanites, people from upstate and mid-state Pennsylvania -- overwhelmingly believe that the state's legislature and criminal justice system need to do more to help ex-offenders keep from committing another crime, according to a poll released Wednesday.

The poll comes as state senators on both sides of the aisle are poised to reintroduce the Clean Slate bill, a bill that would put Pennsylvania in the forefront of criminal justice reform by automatically sealing certain nonviolent misdemeanor records after a period of crime-free time.

"You don't often see polling data like that, where you get 80 to 90 percent bipartisan support," said Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican from Montgomery County who heads the Senate's Judiciary Committee.

Greenleaf said the poll, conducted by the Republican-leaning Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of the nonpartisan U.S. Justice Action Network, represents a sea change in attitudes about criminal justice, one that he, as a former assistant district attorney, has seen over decades of public service.

"I thought being tough on crime was the way to make our streets safe," Greenleaf said Wednesday, "but that's been a failure. For the last 20 years, we've been getting tough on crime. While we were doing that, the recidivism rate was going up. Our recidivism rate is 62 percent. That's terrible."

Sen. Scott Wagner, a Republican from York County who may be a potential rival for Gov. Wolf in 2018, and Sen. Anthony H. Williams, a Democrat who represents parts of Philadelphia and Delaware Counties, are lead sponsors of the bill that already, they say, has 25 cosponsors. Wagner's office said Wagner and Williams hope to introduce the bill, Senate Bill 529, within the next two weeks.

Rep. Jordan Harris, a Democrat from Philadelphia, and Rep. Sheryl Delozier, a Republican from Cumberland County, plan to introduce a similar measure in the General Assembly.

Wagner said that he has employed the formerly incarcerated in his businesses in York, and that he would urge other employers to do the same.

Greenleaf said criminal records represent a major obstacle to employment, and the lack of employment hurts former inmates trying to reintegrate into society. "We continue to punish them," he said. "Are we surprised that our recidivism rate is high when that happens? I am not. We need to give these individuals second chances and put them in a position where they can support their families."

According to the poll taken on January 22 through 24 of 500 registered voters, including nearly half reached by cellphone, 81 percent support "clean-slate" legislation. Under the legislation, certain criminal records would not show up in background checks, but would still be available to law enforcement officials.

The bill would automatically seal the criminal records of people convicted of first-, second- and third-degree nonviolent misdemeanors, such as shoplifting, disorderly conduct and possession of marijuana, after a period of crime-free time. The bill also would seal summary offenses and arrest records when the arrest doesn't result in a conviction.

The poll also indicates that 92 percent support breaking down "barriers for ex-offenders so they can get jobs, support their families, and stop being dependent on government services that cost Pennsylvania taxpayers money." The weakest support for that proposal -- 87 percent in favor -- came out of the Philadelphia suburbs. More than 90 percent of voters in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre, and Harrisburg supported removing barriers for ex-offenders.

Eighty percent or more also approved replacing mandatory minimum sentences, allowing judges more discretion in sentencing, shifting funds from locking up nonviolent offenders to more cost-effective programs, reducing costly prison-release delays and moving certain offenders into supervision and treatment programs. They also said they'd vote for legislators who favored these philosophies.

The survey had a 4.4 percent margin of error.

The Clean Slate bill is similar to one introduced last year, but it wasn't able to be considered before the session ended.

What makes the measure unique is its "automatic nature," said Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, which seeks bipartisan solutions as it tracks criminal justice legislation around the country. "With expungement, it can often be lengthy and cost-prohibitive. It's the automatic nature of these reforms which makes the system fairer for all communities. Pennsylvania would be the first state to implement this automatic sealing."