PA General Assembly Unanimously Expands Criminal Record Sealing By Removing Court Debt and Other Barriers

On Wednesday, October 21st, the General Assembly unanimously enacted House Bill 440 (Delozier, R-Cumberland, and McClinton, D-Philadelphia), a bipartisan bill which advances Clean Slate policies in Pennsylvania.  This bill builds upon the Clean Slate Law, Act 56 of 2018, to open jobs, housing and other opportunities to Pennsylvanians with criminal cases who deserve a chance to move on with their lives.

The centerpiece of HB 440 is that court-ordered financial obligations no longer must be paid before an otherwise eligible case can be sealed.  This change will apply to both cases sealed by automation (Clean Slate) and cases sealed by court petition.  Unlike other court debt, restitution to victims, if any was ordered, continues to need to be paid before a case can be sealed.

HB 440 also advances record clearing by expanding automatic remedies.

  • Full acquittals (cases with not guilty verdicts) will be automatically expunged.
  • Pardoned cases will be automatically sealed.  Individuals receiving pardons from the Governor may still expunge their cases by filing petitions if they choose.

Expungement completely eliminates a case, while sealing removes it from public view but allows it to continue to be considered for limited purposes, most notably law enforcement.

Pennsylvania’s innovative Clean Slate law provides for automated sealing of:

  • Most misdemeanor convictions after 10 crime-free years;
  • Summary offense convictions after 10 years; and
  • Charges that did not result in conviction.

All of these categories will be affected by the elimination of the court debt barrier.  While the number of cases that will be automatically sealed under HB 440 is not known, it will be in the millions.  Through August 2020, 35.6 million cases have been sealed by Clean Slate.

HB 440 addresses well documented racial disparities in the criminal justice system.  According to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, non-white Pennsylvanians comprise around 30% of arrests, despite making up 19% of the state population.  Record clearing can alleviate that disparate impact.

But according to analysis of the Pennsylvania State Police, among the 38,382 people who have had misdemeanor convictions sealed automatically under the innovative Clean Slate Law, 86% were white and 12% were Black.  Moreover, a relatively small number of misdemeanor convictions were sealed (91,591, through August 2020).

Unpaid court debt was the biggest barrier to sealing old misdemeanors by automation, along with missing data.  Analysis by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (PDAO) concluded that 50% of otherwise eligible misdemeanor convictions statewide and 75% in Philadelphia were eliminated from automated sealing by court debt.

Lack of ability to pay is a major reason for this outstanding debt.  According to a study conducted by the Philadelphia courts, 70% of individuals who owe court debt are unemployed and impoverished and cannot afford to pay.  According to the PDAO, in Philadelphia, the median balanced owed in Philadelphia Municipal Court was $275 and in Common Pleas Court was $551.

People owing court debt but otherwise eligible to seal a misdemeanor will be able to file a sealing petition 60 days after the Governor signs the bill.  For persons relying on Clean Slate for automated sealing, the wait will be longer: Court and law enforcement officials have a year to implement the changes.

Sharon Dietrich, Litigation Director for Community Legal Services (CLS), said, “If you have a misdemeanor that is more than 10 years old, this new law could change your life.  Look for a lawyer to file a sealing petition for you when the law goes into effect in two months.  Check with the legal aid program in your county to see if they can represent you.  Otherwise, the law will help you in a year, when the automated sealing process is updated.”

Jamie Gullen, Supervising Attorney at CLS, said, “We are delighted that the General Assembly has removed the requirement of payment of court debt for misdemeanors to be sealed.  They again recognized that a conviction should not be a life sentence to poverty.  We thank our partners who worked with us on this bill, especially the Justice Action Network.”

In addition to prime sponsors Rep. Sheryl Delozier and Rep. Joanna McClinton, CLS thanks Rep. Jordan Harris and Sen. Lisa Baker, Sen. Art Haywood, and Sen. Camera Bartolotta for their leadership on the bill.  We also are appreciative to the General Assembly for their hard work on this bill and on criminal justice reform measures more generally.

  • Criminal Records