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Some states have ‘clean slate’ laws to expunge minor criminal records. What about the feds?

SHARE Some states have ‘clean slate’ laws to expunge minor criminal records. What about the feds?
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf walks with Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, and Rep. Jordan Harris D-Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, right, walks with Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, left, and Rep. Jordan Harris D-Philadelphia, during a news conference in Harrisburg, Pa., Friday, June 28, 2019. Lower level criminal convictions are starting to be automatically sealed under a year-old Pennsylvania state law touted as a way to give offenders a fresh start. State officials and other supporters touted the new phase of the “clean slate” legislation Friday in Harrisburg, calling the program a model for other states.

Matt Rourke, Associated Press

More than 1.2 million people in Pennsylvania have automatically had their minor criminal offenses sealed under the state’s “clean slate” law passed as a way to help them move forward with their lives.

A record, even one with a decades-old misdemeanor or arrest that never led to a conviction, can prevent a person from getting a job, housing, education, professional license or even a loan.

Since Pennsylvania became the first state to pass such a law in 2018, six more have followed suit, including Utah, where the automatic expungement statute took effect in February.

The system identified nearly 500,000 Utahns who could begin the process of clearing their records, starting with cases that were dismissed and that resulted in acquittals. The state courts expect it might take until early next year to identify and clear all eligible records.

Now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers who participated in a press conference Monday wants to pass clean slate legislation on the federal level.

Congress is considering the Clean Slate Act and the Fresh Start Act to enable people with federal arrest and conviction records to petition to have them expunged. The bills also support increased access to automatic record sealing for eligible offenses at the federal and state levels. 

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., are among those supporting the bills.

“We need to pass this legislation so those individuals have a chance to fully partake in the economy and also reduce recidivism rates,” said Reschenthaler, who joined Rep. Lisa Blunt D-Del., in sponsoring the House legislation.

Rep. David Trone, D-Md., calls them “jobs” bills.

“When our local businesses are short-staffed and losing money, we must make all hands available by expunging old, nonviolent offenses. It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

An estimated 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. — more than 100 million people — has some type of criminal record, including those who were charged but not convicted. Nearly half of all children in America have a parent with a record, according to the Clean Slate Initiative, a bipartisan national movement to automate the clearing of criminal records.

Congress has the opportunity to increase access to meaningful employment, education and other opportunities for millions of Americans, said Sheena Meade, Clean Slate Initiative executive director.

“We have seen the transformational impact of clean slate laws on millions of working people in the states that have adopted these policies. It’s promising to see Congress building on that momentum and advancing these long overdue measures at the federal level,” she said.

Most states have a petition-based expungement process through the court system, but it’s typically so complicated and costly that an estimated 90% of people who are eligible for relief never make it through the paperwork. Two law professors at the University of Michigan found that just 6.5% of people in Michigan who qualify clear their records within five years of becoming eligible.

To ease that burden, a growing number of states are using technology to automate the process, which requires no action on the part of people looking to bury their rap sheets. Pennsylvania started automatically identifying and removing certain criminal records in 2019.

In Utah, an estimated 800,000 people have criminal records.

Homeless and addicted to heroin, Destiny Garcia was one of them. Arrested on outstanding warrants in 2017, she went to jail. She went through treatment and drug court and came out sober. She knows firsthand how difficult and expensive the expungement process can be.

Former Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams eventually gave her a job in his office where she made a good salary but couldn’t get housing despite having served her time and paid her fines and restitution. Her colleagues in the mayor’s office held a fundraiser to pay for $3,600 in legal fees to expunge her misdemeanor crimes.

“My life before expungement was government assistance. I solely depended on the government to pay my housing, to pay my food stamps, to pay my financial aid, to pay kids’ insurance. Today, I have transitioned off of all government assistance,” Garcia said at the press conference.

“I am changing and breaking generational curses in my family from poverty, from addiction because I was given that second chance.”

Garcia now works as the executive director of Clean Slate Utah.

In that position, she said she has met mothers who can’t rebuild their lives and fathers who work two or three jobs because they can’t get one decent job. Everyone, she said, deserves a second chance.

“We deserve a shot at redemption. And because I got this shot at redemption, I am able to change my life, my kids’ life and hopefully their kids’ life to come,” Garcia said.

“People should not be defined by their mistakes. I made tons of mistakes in my past. It is not who I am today. Today I am a trusted voice in this community. I’m an advocate in this community.”

Last week, the tech company Rasa Legal launched a new app to give Utahns an easy and affordable way to determine their eligibility to potentially expunge their criminal records.

The web-based app allows users to fill in their date of birth and other personal information and then go through a series of screening questions about their criminal background. They can then pay $14.95 to have Rasa go through court data to find their criminal records and show their eligibility for expungement.

Rasa then offers to represent clients and handle the clearing process of up to three records for $500. Expungement through an attorney typically costs about $2,000 to $3,000.