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Pa. bid to give those convicted of misdemeanors a second chance

The van rolled from in front of the halfway house that cloudy morning, carrying those charting a sounder path. Across the city, another left from a school of young dropouts working toward their GEDs or high school diplomas.

One in an occasional series.

The van rolled from in front of the halfway house that cloudy morning, carrying those charting a sounder path. Across the city, another left from a school of young dropouts working toward their GEDs or high school diplomas.

Other vehicles were loaded with activists, lawyers, social workers, and ex-offenders as they sat outside State Sen. Shirley Kitchen's office in North Philadelphia. The constituencies then headed on a two-hour drive to Harrisburg to lobby for a bill offering second chances.

Senate Bill 1220, versions of which have stalled for years, will likely be brought to a floor vote in early 2012. It would add low-level nonviolent misdemeanor convictions, such as shoplifting, check fraud, and possession of small amounts of marijuana, to the types of offenses that can be expunged from criminal records under certain conditions. If passed, it would move to the House.

Supporters say that despite a convicted person's time served, time clean, and earnest intentions, a criminal record haunts forever.

"We've had people come in who were turned down for jobs," said Kitchen, who has represented the Third District, which includes the neighborhoods of Nicetown, Olney, Fox Chase, Lawncrest, and Melrose Park Garden, for four terms. "We've actually had people come in who could afford the apartment, but after the background check were turned down. It is really a shame. It really limits your life chances."

One 40-year-old who was part of the Harrisburg lobbying day this month is living in a crawl space. Laid off from his warehouse job making plastics about a year ago, the father of two recently received his commercial driver's license. He has left applications with about 20 companies, keeping a list so he doesn't repeat his efforts. But, he said - wanting to use only his middle name, Edward, because of his unemployment burden - those who replied told him he could not be hired because of his criminal record.

"I understand that there's a lot they have to consider before they hire someone like me," said Edward, who lives in the Northeast with his children and their mother, a nursing assistant. He has two felony charges, statutory sexual assault and burglary.

Edward said that when he was 24, he didn't know that his girlfriend was 16. Seven years later, he was convicted for riding in a car he said he didn't know was stolen.

"The thing is," said Edward, "the person went to jail, didn't get into any more trouble, and just wants to go through the rest of their life normal, and they're still paying for that mistake."

Edward would not benefit from the bill directly, since his convictions were for felonies. But the bill could comb out misdemeanor cases and speed up the pardon process, which can take three years from application to hearing. The governor acts on recommendations from the board at his discretion.

"My license," said Edward, "is discounted until I get the pardon." He recently started the process. "Hopefully, I wind up being successful."

In Pennsylvania, there are at least 55 occupations in which some people with criminal records are barred.

Generally in Pennsylvania, criminal convictions can be expunged when a person reaches 70 and has not been arrested in 10 years or has been dead three years.

A few years ago, advocates scored a goal when the state allowed summary offenses - minor infractions such as disorderly conduct - to be expunged if the person has been arrest-free for five years after conviction.

"Most people who come in have something on their record," said Sen. Tim Solobay (D., Washington), the bill's main sponsor. "For people trying to start over, or upgrade what they have, now they've got to worry about that being out there. It just makes it tough."

The bill has support across party lines.

"The sentence they were given," said Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery) chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a bill cosponsor, "it wasn't to punish them for the rest of their lives."

After obtaining an expungement, people can legally answer "no" when asked if they have ever been arrested or convicted of a crime.

But for some, the bill doesn't go far enough. If it becomes law, a judge could expunge third-degree misdemeanor convictions if the petitioner has not been arrested for seven years after final release. Second-degree misdemeanor convictions could only be removed if the person was 25 or younger when the crime was committed, and arrest-free for 10 years.

"It's selective," said Wayne Jacobs, 61, executive director of X-Offenders for Community Empowerment, which he cofounded more than a decade ago.

Jacbos, a slight man with bifocals and a gray goatee, one of the dozens who joined the lobby day, has had a life of extremes. The North Philadelphia native and former Black Panther had been arrested 58 times, mostly for burglary, theft, and drug possession, by the time he was 40, doing stints in jail before turning his life over to his brand of public service.

"You cannot walk both sides of the street," said Jacobs, who has organized ex-offenders around voting rights, employment opportunities, reducing recividism, and tougher gun laws. He thinks judges should have more discretion over expungements.

"After 25," Jacobs said, "if you've been crime-free for 10, 15, 20 years, those people should have an opportunity to have their record expunged as well."

Thirteen states, including California, Delaware, and Texas, recently expanded their expungement laws. New Jersey allows certain nonviolent felony convictions to be expunged 10 years after final release. For misdemeanors, the waiting period is five years.

Some, like Jacobs, want to see the Pennsylvania bill amended to remove the age limit, added as a compromise for youthful indiscretions to gain support.

"That's negotiable on my part," said Solobay. "I don't care one way or another, unless it will have an impact on getting the bill passed."

Solobay has other bills pending. One would assist military families; another would rename a bridge. As far as the expungement bill, "I'm hoping," Solobay said. "I'm hoping."