Millions of records sealed in Pennsylvania criminal justice reform effort
In an experiment being watched across the country, Pennsylvania court officials began scrubbing more than 3 million old, nonviolent criminal charges from the public docket over the weekend.
They are scheduled to repeat that feat every month for the next year under the provisions of the state’s Clean Slate law. Officials with the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts, or AOPC, said they expect to remove tens of millions of cases from the public docket this year.
The law, the first of its kind, was among a raft of proposed criminal justice reforms that have been sweeping the nation. Supporters said it was designed to help people who did their time, paid their fines, stayed out of trouble for a decade and still found themselves facing hurdles to housing and employment as the result of an old record.
The measure that passed the General Assembly last summer with only two no votes called for courts to seal nonviolent misdemeanor records after 10 years, provided the individual had no further brushes with the law, and to automatically seal records of summary offenses and charges that did not result in a criminal conviction.
Individuals whose records fell under those categories were given the option of waiting for the courts to begin automatically sealing records this summer or to petition the courts to act immediately.
In the past, such records were public. But until the advent of online court dockets, those wishing to access them had to visit the courthouse where they were kept.
Pennsylvania’s unified online court dockets made it simple for anyone to check old records.
Short of hiring an attorney and persuading a judge to expunge the record, even charges that did not result in a conviction became available online.
The AOPC began working on a computer program to flag such records late last year and referred the first batch of more than 3 million records to county court officials for action last month.
In Westmoreland County, Clerk of Courts Bryan Kline said his office scrubbed 88,910 charges from the public record in a matter of minutes last weekend. They will run a new batch of charges through the program on the 15th of each month for the next year.
In a court system where each individual can be charged with multiple counts for a single incident, it’s hard to say exactly how many people were affected by the move.
“Some of them probably don’t even know this happened,” Kline said.
He said the program devised by the AOPC seems both efficient and effective. Kline said he flagged several cases before running the program to scrub them from the public record and then went back later to ensure that had indeed happened.
“I can check because we are a court agency. One of the ones I checked was a DUI from 2004. It was eligible for expungement long ago,” Kline said, noting such records would still be available to law enforcement agencies and the courts.
Kline said it appears the records scrubbed in the first round went as far back as the 1980s.
In Allegheny County, the office of court records handles a much higher volume of cases. Officials have been tasked with scrubbing 321,470 from the public docket each month for the next year. A spokeswoman for the county said officials there have begun scrubbing the first 160,000 cases from the public record.
In the six-county region that includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland, more than half a million records a month are scheduled to be sealed this year.
Officials with the AOPC said the most recent records were targeted in the first monthly round of scrubs, but eventually the actions will reach out to seal qualified records reaching as far back as the 1960s.
Sealing millions of cases
Information technology and legal experts for the state agency spent about nine months developing the program that automated the monumental project.
“About 53% of our total caseload will be sealed,” said Amy Ceraso, director of information technology for the AOPC.
That should come to about 40 million offenses on 30 million cases by year end, added Russell Montchal, assistant director of information technology for the agency.
Criminal justice reform advocates say many records that could have been expunged were not because that process typically calls for people to hire lawyers and petition the courts for action.
Clean Slate-type legislation has snared supporters on both ends of the political spectrum.
State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, a prime supporter of the Clean Slate bill, said she also was working on legislation to help keep people from being “endlessly ensnared” in the probation system.
“We’re only hurting ourselves by holding back people who have a criminal record,” Bartolotta said.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf supports such efforts.
“We all agree that it isn’t fair for a person who commits a minor crime to be punished with a lifetime of being unable to get a job or to rent an apartment,” Wolf said.
The law, he said, is “freeing thousands of people from the handcuffs of a past that they should never have had to haunt their lives.”
A similar measure was introduced in Congress this year.
The federal Clean Slate Act includes sponsorship from U.S. Reps. Guy Reschenthaler, a Peters Township Republican, and Delaware Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester. It would automatically seal the federal criminal records of people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes and give Americans convicted of other qualifying nonviolent federal offenses a streamlined process to petition the courts to seal their criminal records.
Advocates say so-called Clean Slate, or Second Chance, legislation would reduce recidivism, give millions of Americans an opportunity to live productive lives and boost the economy.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .