If you sometimes feel the need to hide your past when applying for jobs, housing, or other opportunities, you're certainly not alone. In Pennsylvania, nearly 3 million people have a criminal record of some kind. Many of these are minor convictions (or resulted in no conviction at all), but because of advancements in technology, increased background checking can lead to these insignificant infractions causing lifelong challenges and creating significant barriers to opportunity and prosperity.
Studies show that criminal records have adverse effects not only on individuals, but also their families, communities, and the economy. Criminal records can often lead to poverty, as even small infractions that show up on background checks can prevent equitable access to gainful employment and safe housing. Having a record can also prevent someone from making strides in their education and career. Nationally, studies suggest the poverty rate could be decreased by up to 20 percent if criminal records were not such persistent barriers to opportunity.
Just how likely is it that your criminal record will impact your future? Studies suggest there’s a pretty good chance, as the vast majority of employers, landlords, and colleges perform background checks. This hyper-vigilance is almost always unnecessary, as research indicates that people who committed minor crimes long ago are no more likely to re-offend than someone who has no record at all. Why should some individuals – as well as their families and children – suffer forever because of mistakes they made many years ago?
What is the Clean Slate Law?
Passed in 2018, Pennsylvania's Clean Slate Law proved to be something of a godsend to individuals who couldn't get ahead because of a slip-up they made long ago – in some cases, more than a decade. The Clean Slate Law allows many criminal cases in the state to be sealed, which means they are taken out of public view and cannot be used by employers, schools, or landlords. The innovative law was the first of its kind in the country and allowed millions of criminal records in Pennsylvania to be locked away from public access.
As with any rule, there were exceptions to the Clean Slate Law: It applied only to arrests that did not end up with a conviction or summary convictions that were more than 10 years old. The law also applied to second- and third-degree misdemeanors if they happened more than 10 years ago and the person had no other subsequent convictions since then. The law also required restitution to crime victims to be paid in full.
However, restrictions still limited the law from benefiting the lives of many individuals with minor criminal records. A recent study indicated that only 6.5 percent of people eligible to have their records cleared filed petitions with the court. This was largely due to a lack of access to lawyers, an inability to pay filing fees, or lack of knowledge about eligibility. Taking these barriers into consideration, the Pennsylvania legislature enacted vital changes to the Clean Slate Law last year.
What Do Changes to the Clean Slate Law Mean?
When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed House Bill 440, the historic Clean Slate Law expanded to remove an obligation to pay court-ordered financial obligations before eligible cases can be sealed. Because Clean Slate previously required all court costs to be paid in full before someone's record could be cleared, this left many individuals unable to escape their past and perpetuated a vicious cycle – to pay outstanding fines, one needed a good job, but to get a job, first they needed to pass a background check.
Perhaps most importantly, the changes to the Clean Slate Law utilize technology to automatically seal certain criminal records from public view. Beginning on June 28, 2019, arrest records could be sealed after charges were dropped, and some minor conviction records could be sealed after 10 years. Prior to this change, half of people with misdemeanor convictions statewide could have had their records sealed automatically if not for unpaid fines and fees, according to Community Legal Services.
Since 2019, almost 35 million cases have been sealed without requiring a petition to be filed in court, constituting more than half of the charges in the institution's database. This has allowed millions of people to move forward with their lives and pursue opportunities that were previously out of reach due to a criminal past.
In addition to its groundbreaking automated sealing process, the Clean Slate Law has also increased the number of misdemeanor convictions that can be sealed after a petition is filed in court. Because sealed records cannot be accessed by the public – including employers, schools, and landlords – this increases opportunities for millions of individuals to access employment, housing, and education. It also allows people the peace of mind knowing their past will not haunt them forever.
Could Clean Slate Law Changes Benefit You?
If you have a minor criminal record in Pennsylvania and previously did not know you were eligible for the Clean Slate Law or could not afford associated fees, changes to the law and the automated sealing process could have significant positive impacts on your life. According to Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, landlords, employers, and colleges cannot access sealed records when conducting background checks, allowing many people to proceed as though they have no record at all.
"If information regarding criminal history is requested by an employer, school, or landlord, a person whose cases have been sealed by Clean Slate may respond as if the offense did not occur. If your whole record has been sealed, you can say you do not have any record," the organization says.
The Clean Slate Law could have myriad positive impacts on society as well. As people are allowed to pursue more gainful employment, the poverty rate would go down, allowing people to move into safer housing and making them less reliant on government assistance and other social services. Higher wages would also lead to an increase in taxes collected by the government, as well as allow people to pay off court fines and fees.
While the Clean Slate Law will keep records hidden from the public, they will still be available to law enforcement, FBI background checks, and employers who are required to consider records under federal law. Additionally, House Bill 440 could help amend the fact that so far the law has proven more advantageous for white people than black people, as Community Legal Services of Pennsylvania reports that only 12 percent of those whose records were sealed after misdemeanor convictions were black while 86 percent were white.
It's important to note that the individuals who qualify for record clearing under the Clean Slate Law are not career criminals or major offenders, as felons, people whose actions have endangered others, anyone convicted of gun or sex crimes, and those with multiple serious convictions aren't eligible to have their records cleared. Additionally, if people who are eligible for Clean Slate break the law again, the legal system can still hold their criminal past against them when considering future charges.
Need Help With Your Record? Contact Us Today.
If your opportunities in education, employment, or housing have been limited because of a minor criminal infraction, you have the right to defend yourself and safeguard your future and your integrity. It is important to know your rights if you have been accused of a crime, and taking advantage of laws like Clean Slate can help you move forward and build a better future for you and your family. An experienced lawyer can help you understand your case and figure out how to proceed.
If you're ready to put the past behind you and reclaim your future, the Lento Law Firm is here to help. Criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento's specialty is fighting for the rights of accused individuals across the country. Our law firm has already adapted to the virtual realities of a post-COVID world, and we can help guide you to the most beneficial outcome for your case.
Mr. Lento has many years of experience successfully resolving clients' criminal charges in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you or a loved one, contact the Lento Law Firm today. Call (888) 535-3686 to speak directly with experienced attorney Joseph D. Lento about your case.