Pa.’s new Clean Slate Law means jail time is no longer a life sentence

Pennsylvania's Clean Slate Law allows for the sealing of most simple assault convictions and first-degree misdemeanors. (Photo by Flickr user Nic McPhee, used under a Creative Commons license)

Pennsylvania's Clean Slate Law allows for the sealing of most simple assault convictions and first-degree misdemeanors. (Photo by Flickr user Nic McPhee, used under a Creative Commons license)

Before she met her “angel,” ND received three separate convictions in Philadelphia for prostitution and solicitation from 1993 to 1999 which saw her serving more than six months in jail.

It was all to earn money to support her dependency on cocaine.

“Six months felt like six years,” she said.

Shortly after her release, ND, who asked that Generocity not publish her full name, decided to get clean. She entered a rehab facility in 2001 but struggled to rectify her poor credit, stay on the path to sobriety and understand the options she might have to clear her criminal record.

That’s where her angel comes in.

It came in the form of Sharon Dietrich, the litigation director and managing attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and her colleague Jamie Gullen, a staff attorney, who push to give people like ND a literal and figurative clean slate.

The nonprofit, founded in 1966, has provided free legal assistance to more than one million low-income Philadelphians, according to its website. On Dec. 26, CLS celebrated the enactment of the Clean Slate Law, a measure they helped develop and advocated for.

The law allows for the sealing of most simple assault convictions and first-degree misdemeanors, like ND’s. Currently, sealing occurs through a pardon process and court petitions, but records will seal automatically by June 28 for individuals who have avoided convictions for 10 years.

More than 500,000 Philadelphians are living with a criminal record, Gullen said.

“We really see this as a bill that’s going to help a lot of people become employed and hopefully lift people out of poverty,” she said. “It’s a huge piece of the puzzle to help people access opportunities” by opening doors for people who would otherwise be denied for employment, housing and government loans because of a criminal record, which is readily available online.

Sealing a criminal record means it is no longer visible to employers or the general public, though it will still be available to local and federal law enforcement. Expungement completely destroys criminal records, takes a longer petitioning process and occurs outside of Clean Slate.

On Jan. 2, Gov. Tom Wolf announced a Clean Slate screening project to help individuals with criminals records navigate their eligibility under the complex law. CLS is providing the assistance, which those seeking help can access by filling a publicly available review form.

Assata Thomas is the director of the Institute for Community Justice, a program within Philadelphia FIGHT that provides support to individuals and their families affected by mass incarceration. The job training and other educational experiences her office provides often go to waste when individuals can’t be hired because of their record.

“Personal accountability and rehabilitation are only one-half of the solution concerning recidivism,” Thomas said. “Societal accountability and rehabilitation must be at the vanguard for us to truly have a successful seat.”

Thomas said many individuals with records are struggling with the nuances of Clean Slate but hopes the screening project could alleviate those concerns.

Previously, Pennsylvania had the least progressive criminal justice reform laws, Gullen said. Act 5, a 2016 criminal record sealing law, is not applicable to those with four or more offenses punishable by imprisonment of a year or more. ND was not eligible.

Now a homemaker and unable to work from injuries suffered to her knee while exercising in jail, ND said she lives within the Philadelphia Housing Authority system. One day, she hopes to be a bailiff.

“At the end of the day,” ND said, “my record should be clean just like me.”

 

Generocity is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice.

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