Riding a wave of interest in criminal-justice reform among liberals and conservatives alike, Pennsylvania state lawmakers and nonprofit groups on Thursday renewed calls to erase criminal records for some offenders convicted of minor crimes.
Their focus was on Senate Bill 166, which would give those convicted of second- or third-degree misdemeanors, such as retail theft, the chance to have their records expunged after 10 years if they have stayed out of trouble.
The measure, supported by Gov. Wolf, also would require law enforcement agencies to remove arrest records after three years in cases in which defendants had not been convicted.
In an afternoon conference call, State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf (R., Montgomery) and State Rep. Jordan A. Harris (D., Phila.) said the bill was poised to pass the House when lawmakers return to Harrisburg next week. The Senate unanimously approved the proposal in February.
Many states, including New Jersey, already have such laws. But Pennsylvania's bill reflects the growing momentum throughout the nation - from President Obama to the conservative Koch brothers - to find ways to reduce swelling prison and jail populations and their associated costs.
Expungement offers one less barrier to convicts seeking a stable job, something that makes them far less likely to re-offend and return to jail, advocates say.
"This wouldn't cure the problem for all folks, but it would move Pennsylvania into the future," said Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a nonprofit focused on reducing the prison population. "Most of our neighbors around us have already done this."
The law, in its current form, would be limited to crimes with jail sentences of less than two years and would not apply to sex offenders, people who intimidated witnesses, or those who committed simple assaults.
It wouldn't be perfect, experts say. Given the rise of the Internet, expungement would fail to erase news stories about the offenses or prevent companies that conduct background checks from cataloging the conviction.
"In the age of the Internet, there is no such thing as expungement," said Marissa Bluestine, director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project at Temple University's Law School. "The question is whether an employer can use the crime against a potential hire once there has been an expungement."
Bluestine said the bill ideally would eliminate barriers to employment, as well as certain types of financial aid and mortgage assistance. She added that would-be employees could file discrimination claims, citing an expungement law.
"But hopefully, in the long term, people will understand that it's not a reflection of someone's character when they had gone through something in their youth or several years ago," she said.
Currently, only summary offenses such as public drunkenness or disorderly conduct can be expunged, said Ron Elgart, a Bucks County-based defense attorney. Offenders could ask the governor for a pardon, a process that Elgart said takes about four years and involves lots of money and legal costs. Diversion programs also prevent charges from being filed for first-time offenders.
"Everybody is waking up to the fact that the way we've been doing it in the criminal justice system isn't working and [is] costing a fortune," he said.