Pennsylvania starts automatic sealing of some criminal files


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Lower-level criminal convictions in Pennsylvania began to be automatically sealed Friday under a state law touted as a way to give offenders a fresh start.

State officials and other supporters marked the new phase of the "clean slate" legislation at a news conference in Harrisburg, calling the program a model for other states.

Democratic state Rep. Jordan Harris, who helped sponsor the bill, said he's seen damage the justice system has done to people in the south Philadelphia neighborhood where he's from.

"My view is that government's job is to get out of the way of people," Harris said.

Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, another prime backer of the bill, said she was also working on legislation to help keep people from being "endlessly ensnared" in the probation system.

"We're only hurting ourselves by holding back people who have a criminal record," Bartolotta said.

The court system plans to seal about 2.5 million records a month for the next year, including summary offenses, less serious misdemeanors and those that do not involve convictions.

The courts are starting with the most recent cases and will eventually go back to the 1960s and '70s.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said criminal records can be a barrier to education, housing and health care.

"We all agree that it isn't fair for a person who commits a minor crime to be punished with a lifetime of being unable to get a job or to rent an apartment," Wolf said.

The law, he said, is "freeing thousands of people from the handcuffs of a past that they should never have had to haunt their lives."

Defendants are not eligible if they have a prior criminal history that includes a felony, two first-degree misdemeanors or four second-degree misdemeanors.

The convictions aren't automatically expunged and will be available to police, courts and prosecutors.

People who do not qualify for automatic sealing can ask a judge to seal misdemeanors, with some exceptions.

A provision in the law expressly allows people whose criminal records are sealed to respond to questions "as if the offense did not occur," although there are exceptions that include criminal justice agencies.

It applies to second- and third-degree misdemeanors — first-degree is the most serious — except those involving firearms, cruelty to animals, and corruption of minors and some other categories.

The misdemeanor records will be automatically kept out of public view for defendants who have gone a decade without a new conviction.

The bill also applies to all summary convictions that are at least 10 years old, as long as the defendants have paid fines and otherwise met all court-ordered obligations.

Gene Barr, head of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said his organization supported the bill because they consider it the fair thing to do, it helps taxpayers by making more people productive members of society and it's a way to improve the state workforce.