Campaign to Automatically Expunge Criminal Convictions Targets States


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“This is the epitome of the failed big government system, the criminal justice system,” said the senior vice president of Koch Industries, an advocate in the fight to expunge and seal criminal records.

WASHINGTON — The Center for American Progress on Thursday announced a national, bipartisan “clean slate” campaign to automate criminal record-clearing in states for people who avoid committing another offense for a set amount of time.

Between 70 million and 100 million people have some form of criminal record, which in the digital era of background checks can prevent them from even applying for a lease, job or to further their education at a trade school or college. Half of all children in the U.S. have at least one parent in that situation, opening them up to instability including homelessness.

Pennsylvania was the first state to pass a clean slate law in June with bipartisan support from Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Scott Wagner and Democratic state Rep. Jordan Harris.

The law, which was signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in June, doesn’t apply to felony crimes. People who have been convicted of felonies also aren’t eligible. The law gave the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts and the state police two years to examine cases and automatically seal them, although people can petition a court to do it faster.

Criminal justice reform has become more of a bipartisan issue in recent years, with both conservatives and liberals saying the system doesn’t give people real second chances to rebuild their lives. Even President Trump, who campaigned as being “tough on crime,” endorsed federal prison and sentencing reform legislation Wednesday along with the Fraternal Order of Police.

But as most people are convicted of state crimes, advocates noted that is where most of the work needs to occur.

“So much of this does have to happen at the state level,” said David Plouffe, head of policy and advocacy for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, during the campaign launch at the D.C. headquarters for the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress.

Koch Industries, owned by brothers Charles and David Koch, the big players in conservative politics, teamed up with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to get the clean state law across the finish line in Pennsylvania, a bellwether state for many policies.

“Pennsylvania is not a state that is eager to make big, bold expungement changes,” said Sharon Dietrich, litigation director and managing attorney for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.

Before the law was changed, CLS was getting about at most 3,000 criminal cases expunged a year—practically crashing the First Judicial District docket—and still wasn’t “even close to meeting the need,” Dietrich said.

CLS’s attorneys knew the cases were basically all the same and that a single database could provide all the criteria needed for the courts to seal or expunge a case, but it wasn’t until the Justice Action Network made clean slate a priority that a bill was authored and prime sponsors identified.

“This is the epitome of the failed big government system, the criminal justice system,” said Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries.

In some cases, technology may be key to helping seal criminal records. District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar ran on a “tough on crime” platform in San Joaquin County, California to get elected in 2015 because gang violence in the area was high and narcotics were being trafficked up and down local corridors. Bur Verber Salazar came to see that sealing records was critical given the high volume of misdemeanors in her county and jail overcrowding.

A year earlier, California had passed legislation reclassifying certain felonies as misdemeanors, but only 20 percent of affected people were reached. In attempting to seal criminal records, San Joaquin County got 250,000 hits on marijuana cases alone.

“The technology was killing us,” Verber Salazar said.

Code for America stepped in and provided affordable software that reads rap sheets, puts the proper offenses in a petition for clearing, and forwards it to the court.

Verber Salazar said the county hopes to begin sealing misdemeanor and then felony records the same day as conviction beginning in 2019.

Most people with criminal records are unaware of their ability to clear them or unable to hire a lawyer to advocate for such action on their behalf, said Neera Tanden, president and CEO of CAP.

“You move on, but society is not really ready for you to move on,” said Ronald Lewis of his two 2004 misdemeanor convictions that “haunted” him until Pennsylvania passed its clean slate law.

State leaders, which advocates said included some in North Carolina, are considering following Pennsylvania’s lead, and their business communities are getting on board because of their desire to tap into an overlooked workforce.

Michigan businesses report a number of unfilled positions, and criminal records might be a barrier to applicants, said Jared Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Calder Group that belongs to business coalition Safe and Just Michigan.

“We are clearly missing an awful lot of our talent pool,” Rodriguez said.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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