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Is Expungement The Key To Life After Crime?

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Criminal convictions bring expected consequences — fines, probation, parole and incarceration.

"What they don't tell you ... is that there are about 550 collateral consequences," said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery, Bucks). "They're not in the criminal statutes, they're in the other statutes and (enforced) by societal standards."

Supporters believe 2015 could finally be the year for a bill promising to wipe clean criminal records from low-level offenders truly committed to rehabilitation.

"There are young people that were in their teens and committed a crime. Let's say retail theft or disorderly conduct — something like that. That's on their record,” he said. “Years ago, employers never did background checks on this, but as time's gone on, something like 87 percent do."

Holly Harris, executive director of the new Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit U.S. Justice Action Network, said employers just throw those applications away.

"When (ex-offenders) go in to apply for jobs they have to check a box stating that they have a criminal record and it removes them from the (hiring) process altogether,” Harris said.

Ex-offenders who can't find legitimate jobs often turn back to crime, she said, and recidivism rates continue to climb.

Current expungement law requires the offender reach age 70 and be crime-free for 10 years or have been dead for three years.

“That's not a fair chance,” Harris said. “That's not an opportunity. That's an impossibility."

Senate Bill 166, Greenleaf’s newest incarnation of a years-old bill aiming to release rehabilitated former offenders from the shadow of their former choices, would be the first step in a long line of legislation aiming to reduce prison populations and return former convicts to productive, successful lives.

This version was designed for limited access, he said, not a complete expungement. Law enforcement agencies will maintain full access to past records “so they can make intelligent decisions” about potential future investigations,” Greenleaf said. The general public would not have access to that information.

Also on Essential Pittsburgh, discussing the Life Without Bars employment conference and the EPA taking steps to finalize a carbon pollution standard. 

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be found here.