Pa. law allows sealing some old criminal records — and new sense of hope for the future

    Jody looks forward to having her criminal record sealed. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)

    Jody looks forward to having her criminal record sealed. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)

    Jody stared at the well-worn court paperwork spread across her dining room table. The pages, folded and refolded hundreds of times, have haunted her for a decade — a constant reminder of her one and only brush with the law.

    WHYY is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented focus on the issues facing the formerly incarcerated Philadelphians. The aim is to produce journalism that speaks, across the city and across media platforms, to the challenges and solutions for re-entry.

    Jody stared at the well-worn court paperwork spread across her dining room table. The pages, folded and refolded hundreds of times, have haunted her for a decade — a constant reminder of her one and only brush with the law.

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    “I just want to move on with my life,” said Jody, 57, recently inside her tidy home in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. “This is not who I am.”

    NewsWorks is withholding Jody’s last name to avoid undermining her legal effort to clear her criminal past.

    In the coming months, Jody may finally be able to do just that thanks to Act 5, a new Pennsylvania law that went into effect this week.

    Because Jody hasn’t committed another crime since being sentenced and has paid all fines and costs tied to her case, she’s eligible to have her criminal record sealed from the public. She simply has to file a petition and get a judge’s approval.

    That’s a big deal.

    Before Act 5, Jody’s only option was obtaining a pardon, a process that typically takes five years, if at all. Over the past decade, governors have, on average, granted fewer than 150 pardons each year. The state’s Board of Pardons receives hundreds of applications.

    With Act 5, Jody is now on track to have her record sealed in a matter of months.

    “I would feel great,” said Jody. “It would make me feel a whole lot better.”

    ‘A big step forward’

    In the late 1980s, Jody pleaded guilty to welfare fraud. The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which doles out those dollars, alleged Jody lied about her income so she could receive more public assistance. She was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay supervision fees, which she did.

    The problem: The courts said Jody never paid restitution — roughly $2,000. In 2006, the outstanding debt landed Jody in jail. She was arrested in North Philadelphia on her way to work.

    “They told me they had a warrant out on me — I was a fugitive,” said Jody, a certified nursing assistant.

    Jody used her tax refund to cover the restitution payment after she was released, but the charges remain on her record.

    For years, that wasn’t a problem. Jody was able to find work to support herself and her family.

    Things are different now. Jody’s children are grown, but she’s unemployed after her company downsized in June. She’s using food stamps for the first time in nearly two decades. And her criminal record is making it hard to land a job and follow through on her plan to move to North Carolina to live with her fiancé.

    “I want to work. It’s just not fair. This is just not fair,” said Jody.

    Jamie Gullen, a staff attorney with Community Legal Services, estimates that up to 15,000 Philadelphia residents are eligible for record sealing under Act 5, the first change to the state’s expungement laws in nearly a decade.

    The measure applies to second- and- third-degree misdemeanors. The most common offenses include simple drug possession, drunken driving, prostitution, low-level retail theft and disorderly conduct.

    “Act 5 is a huge step forward,” said Gullen. “Pennsylvania was very far behind other states for a long time in terms of not having any remedy for misdemeanor convictions. Almost 30 states now allow even some felony convictions to be expunged or sealed.”

    Others wait for expanded law

    But there are between 300,000 and 500,000 residents in Philadelphia with criminal records. Some, including Jose, come incredibly close to qualifying for Act 5.

    In 1996, Jose and some friends were on their way to a nightclub in North Philadelphia to celebrate Jose’s birthday.

    They never made it. At a police checkpoint near the club, police searched the car after smelling alcohol on the driver and found an unlicensed gun beneath the passenger seat.

    “They locked us up,” said Jose, whose last name NewsWorks is also withholding. “Nobody would admit whose gun it was.”

    Jose, 49, spent a couple days in jail before he was convicted of carrying an unlicensed firearm, a first-degree misdemeanor. The conviction, his first and only, has left Jose with a bruise that still hurts after 20  years.

    It’s particularly painful when he’s around his firefighter friends.

    “That could have been me. I could have been with them,” he said. “It put me in a depression in one point because something that I really wanted to do, I didn’t get to.”

    Eight months ago, Jose was hired to do maintenance work at a charter school in West Philadelphia. It was his first job in about as many months after his criminal record cost him a similar position at school in New Jersey.

    Jose worries the same thing will happen to him again. Every day.

    “I’m gonna be working at a McDonald’s or at a fast-food restaurant where they’re not worrying about that type of stuff,” said Jose. “I’m gonna go from making OK money to having two jobs to make up for the one job.”

    It’s one of the reasons why Jose is seeking a pardon. Peace of mind is another. He also has two children now — a son and a daughter — and wants to set an example.

    “To have them look at me and say he never gave up. You know, my dad kept going forward, and he did it,” he said. “For me to do that and have them see me do that, it’s the ultimate goal.”

    Gullen, with Community Legal Services, said there’s nothing in the works to make life easier for those who don’t qualify for Act 5. But there are some signs that make her optimistic that the state may be moving that way.

    Lawmakers in Harrisburg are considering a measure that would automatically seal non-convictions, summary offenses and nonviolent misdemeanors from public view as long as no other crimes are committed for a set period of time. That would be 60 days for nonconvictions; five years for summary offenses; and 10 years for nonviolent misdemeanors.

    The bill, known as Clean Slate, has been introduced in both chambers and is currently being reviewed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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