Historic Pa. law to automatically seal millions of criminal charges starting Friday

Starting Friday, 40 million criminal charges in Pa. will be eligible for automatic sealing, potentially giving thousands of residents a second chance.

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Ralph at his home in West Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ralph at his home in West Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Forty million.

That’s the number of criminal charges in Pennsylvania that will be eligible for automatic sealing when the second phase of the state’s Clean Slate law kicks in Friday. 

While law enforcement will still be able to pull up arrests and convictions, the public — including landlords and most employers — will not. They’ll be hidden — as if they never happened, potentially giving thousands of Pennsylvania residents a second chance.

The law applies to non-convictions, summary offenses, and most nonviolent misdemeanor convictions, including drunk driving, shoplifting, and prostitution.

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When Clean Slate took effect in December, residents with those kinds of records needed to hire lawyers and go to court to get them sealed. Starting Friday, the automation process can start once a judge signs off on a batch of eligible charges.

“It’s the first day in the history of the United States that records will be sealed by automation. And it is quite possible that, in the first week, more cases will be sealed by automation than have ever been sealed in the entire history of the United States,” said Sharon Dietrich, litigation director at Community Legal Services, the nonprofit that helped craft Clean Slate, which garnered overwhelming bipartisan support in the General Assembly. 

Non-convictions can be sealed after 60 days; convictions after a decade, as long as another crime has not been committed since. All court fines and fees also have to be paid in full.

‘A weight will be lifted’

“Once this is done, I just feel like a weight will be lifted off my shoulders,” said Nichole, a mother from West Philadelphia. WHYY News has agreed to withhold her last name so as not to undermine her efforts to put her past behind her. 

Nichole has a string of arrests so old she barely remembers the incidents. She knows one of them was for shoplifting about 15 years ago. She had just lost her job as a street canvasser to downsizing and had no money for food.

“I walked into a Wawa because I was hungry and started eating,” she said.

Nichole spent a couple of nights in jail. The case was later dismissed due to lack of evidence. But the arrest remained on her record — just like the others she racked up over the next two years.

Nichole’s record meant she couldn’t fulfill her dream of becoming a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department. That hurt, but she said the real punch was to her self-esteem.  She felt like a second-class citizen, despite the fact she was never convicted of a crime. 

“Even though we don’t have caste and social class, we really do. So knowing that my background will be sealed … it’s just like looking at a lens and it’s going to become clear,” she said.

Nichole will be one of the first Pennsylvania residents to have their criminal records automatically sealed.

Others, like fellow West Philadelphia resident Ralph, have already felt the impact of the law. WHYY News has also agreed to withhold his last name to protect his privacy.

Ralph got a pair of misdemeanor convictions sealed earlier this year, before the start of automation. The convictions are tied to a fight he had with an ex-girlfriend back in 2001.

Things got heated, Ralph said, when he tried to leave the house with his 2-year-old son, a routine he developed for times when his ex wasn’t taking the medications she was prescribed for bipolar disorder.

“It sort of was like living with Jekyll and Hyde. You didn’t know what you was going to walk into,” said Ralph.

This particular afternoon, Ralph’s ex-girlfriend grabbed a bread knife and barricaded the door so he couldn’t leave. She called the police after the knife nicked her arm while he was moving her out of the way.

Ralph served two years’ probation after pleading guilty to simple assault, possession of an instrument of crime, and making terroristic threats.

He said his record stopped him from getting jobs he knew he was qualified for.

“Ten or 15 minutes dictated about 10 or 15 years — really honestly, about 16 or 17 years,” he said.

Ralph’s luck changed earlier this year. In March, a life-changing letter from Ralph’s lawyer arrived in the mail. Two of the three misdemeanor charges were officially sealed. 

The third, making terroristic threats, didn’t qualify for sealing under Clean Slate. 

Ralph was still ecstatic. 

“I was so happy. I told my fiancée, I said, ‘Come on, get up, we’re going to dinner,’” he said. 

Three months later, Ralph is already a dock manager at a manufacturing plant in the Philadelphia suburbs that pumps out a variety of products, including dental floss and guitar strings. He’s earning almost double what he made as a forklift operator, the only warehouse jobs he could get before the Clean Slate law.

The pay bump meant he could finally afford to take a vacation after more than a decade without one.

“It’s a whole lot of relief,” said Ralph. 

To see if you’re eligible for record-sealing under Clean Slate, visit mycleanslatepa.com.

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