In Pennsylvania, if you have a criminal record, it's likely to stick to you forever, affecting your ability to find a job or decent housing, damaging your credit and otherwise preventing you from having a normal life. That's even if you never get into trouble again after a youthful misstep or were never convicted.
You read that right: even if you were never convicted.
That explains why Pennsylvania legislators in the current session have introduced, at last count, 17 bills to change how expungement works in the commonwealth. Right now, you can’t have your criminal record erased unless you have reached age 70 or have been dead for three years.
The bill that seems to have the most traction, since it’s been endorsed by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, is SB 391, introduced by Sen. Tim Solobay (D-Washington). It would, to quote Solobay’s website, “allow individuals who were convicted of certain misdemeanors of the second and third degree to apply to have the record expunged if they keep a clean record for seven years and ten years, respectively.”
Of the other bills, some shorten the period of time that must pass before a person can petition for an expungement or would make expungement automatic in certain circumstances. Others broaden the range of crimes eligible for expungement or address specific instances, such as those charged as victims of sex trafficking or those with disciplinary records at the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs.
HB 908, by Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia), includes everything from open lewdness and defrauding secured creditors (both misdemeanors) to felony Megan’s Law offenses that would still require 15 to 25 years of public registration, which seems nonsensical.
HB 1595, from Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D-Delaware), would even make it a crime to publish an offense if the person knew or should have known it had been expunged. That would seem to have First Amendment issues.
But that’s where the rub comes in. You can erase an official record, but especially in the age of the Internet, you can’t make the past go away. From newspaper archives and international search engines that index records to for-profit databases that scrape and collect information they then sell to clients, memory today has a long reach.
That reasoning is behind the movement to attack the problem from the other side, by regulating how criminal records can be used in the hiring process. Philadelphia already has a “ban the box” ordinance, meaning that employers cannot ask questions about criminal history on job applications or in a first interview. (It’s no coincidence that more than two-thirds of these expungement bills come from Philly-area legislators. According to the Criminal Record Expungement Project, one-fifth of Philadelphians have a criminal record. Philadelphia County’s unemployment rate, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, is running well ahead of the state.)
These efforts are worthwhile, if we truly believe that a person can pay his or her debt to society and move on – and if they don’t interfere with an employer’s ability to learn information pertinent to a specific position. An applicant with a history of writing bad checks, fraud or embezzlement, after all, wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice for a financial job.
None of these bills to date has received much public attention; instead, committees hold hearings, sometimes in multiple years, and the legislative process grinds on. You should ask your state rep or business/trade organizations where they stand on this issue and what you can do to offer input so that any resulting laws help rather than hinder your business.
This is such a complex, emotional and political issue that employers ignore it at their peril.
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