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Effort to grant 'clean slate' for minor crimes attracts rare bipartisan consensus

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler is among Republicans backing legislation to make it easier to expunge records of low-level criminal offenses.

Bipartisanship in Washington, D.C. is in short supply.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Republican U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler don’t agree on much. But on Monday, they both said Congress has a chance to remove the stigma of criminal convictions that can punish Americans for years after they've finished serving their sentences.

The two Pennsylvania elected officials joined with other elected officials and advocates Monday morning, touting two bills that would make it easier to clear records of low-level offenses from public view. Such measures were necessary, they said, to ensure that people don’t lose out on jobs, housing or other opportunities because of years-old mistakes that hurt no one else.

“We need to pass this legislation so those individuals have a chance to fully partake in the economy and also reduce recidivism rates,” said Reschenthaler, who joined with Delaware Democratic U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester to sponsor one of the bills a year-and-a-half ago.

More than one in three adults in the United States have some form of criminal record, but many of those charges involve what Reschenthaler called “low-level, non-violent offenses. They should not be hampering somebody once they've paid their debt to society,”

The legislative package contains two separate measures targeting that population. The “Clean Slate Act” creates a process for clearing a non-violent federal conviction from a person’s record and sets up a system in which low-level drug offenses can be sealed automatically after a sentence is served with no subsequent convictions.

The “Fresh Start Act,” meanwhile, offers money to help states establish and improve programs that seal records automatically where minor state-level offenses are involved.

Both bills have bipartisan support and are slated to be taken up by the House Judiciary Committee next week.

Reschanthaler supported similar legislation in Harrisburg, where he served as a state senator. Ultimately, one such bill became Act 56 of 2018, which went beyond earlier measures that allowed a court to expunge records of some offenses. Act 56 automatically sealed non-violent misdemeanors and other minor encounters with law enforcement after 10 years, without the burden of going to court.

The Pennsylvania legislation was the first of its kind and served as a model for the federal clean-slate bill. Inimai Chettiar, who works on federal legislative priorities for the Justice Action Network, hailed Reschenthaler as “a champion of clean slate dating back to his time as a state senator when Pennsylvania led the nation with the first-ever clean slate law in 2018.”

For his part, Reschenthaler credited support from conservative groups backing the bill. And the bipartisan consensus in Congress reflects a broader coming-together of advocacy groups that typically have little in common.

Criminal justice advocates say the measures provide a long-overdue measure of fairness for people caught up in a punitive and inequitable criminal justice system. Pro-business groups, meanwhile, tout the economic benefits of a plan that removes barriers to people entering the workforce, where they can provide a source of labor and reduce the draw on social service programs.

“The barriers posed by a criminal record are preventing these individuals from improving their own economic situations and the economic situations of their families,” said Jeremiah Mosteller, of Americans for Prosperity. The result, he said, “is limiting our country’s economic growth at a time when we need it most — at a time when Americans are facing rising inflation, and there are major concerns about an economic recession.

“One mistake should not wipe out all opportunities for people to do better in the future,” said Sheena Meade, executive director at the Clean Slate Initiative. “Yet still today, millions of people with a record cannot get a fair chance to better their lives, provide for their families and contribute to the communities because they have a record.

“We must ensure that we’re actively reducing barriers to opportunity for returning citizens, and that starts with automatic sealing,” said Casey, who supports similar legislation in the Senate and who addressed the event in a pre-recorded message.

It was time, he said, to provide “a fair opportunity at a second chance by automatically sealing their low-level, non-violent criminal records after they successfully have completed their sentences.”

Corrected: September 13, 2022 at 11:31 AM EDT
This story was updated at 11:31 a.m. on Sept. 13, 2022 to correct Sheena Meade's title.
Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.