Pennsylvania has begun automatically sealing 30 million criminal records as part of the state's Clean Slate Law.
More than 70 million Americans have a criminal record. Many have only minor offenses or arrests without conviction, but even a minor criminal history can present obstacles to employment, housing, public assistance, education, and family reunification, miring people and their families in poverty.
"This Clean Slate law is really about preventing a criminal charge being a life sentence to poverty," Katie Svoboda-Kindle, a staff attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which pushed for the new law, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Having charges or even just arrests on your record affects your ability to get good-paying work, housing, education."
Researchers at the University of Michigan found that people whose records were expunged saw their wages increase by an average of 25 percent within two years. But only 6.5 percent of people eligible for expungement were able to complete the process, which can be confusing and expensive, often costing hundreds of dollars in filing fees alone.
The Clean Slate Act is designed to save time and money for applicants and government by automatically sealing eligible records. Analysts estimate the cost of clearing records under an automated system is 5 cents per case, in contrast with up to thousands of dollars under normal petition systems.
The law passed last year with broad bipartisan support from a coalition of businesses, conservatives, and advocates.
Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his group supports the act in part because it helps businesses bring more people into the workforce. "We have a workforce problem in this commonwealth and this country. We have large numbers of jobs without people to fill them, and we do have people without jobs. How do we make a system to break those barriers down? We see Clean Slate as a way to do that," he said.
The new law's first phase started in December and allowed people with old misdemeanors on their records to apply for their records to be sealed if they had no new offenses for 10 years.
Phase two began last Friday, making Pennsylvania the first state in the country to automatically seal records for people who were arrested but not convicted and for those with low-level offenses who have not committed another offense for 10 years.
The state's previous law allowed certain records to be expunged after a waiting period. The Clean Slate Act includes a wider range of offenses, but seals records instead of expunging them, which means records are still visible to law enforcement and can show up on FBI background checks.
Other states have been following these developments in Pennsylvania, where the Clean Slate Act is expected to save the state money. Last year, Utah approved similar "clean slate" legislation, and the Washington Post reports that other legislatures, including Arkansas and California, are considering their own bills.