Creating a “clean slate” for formerly convicted persons
On April 27 and 28, 2021, Sen. Robert (Bob) Casey (D-PA), Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), Rep. Lisa Rochester (D-DE) and Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA-14) introduced the Clean Slate Act to Congress. The Clean Slate Act would automatically seal criminal records for certain arrests and nonviolent offenses one year after the individual fulfills all requirements of their sentence. The proposed bill would remove barriers for many Americans to find employment, secure housing and access education by expunging the federal records of individuals convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug offenses after they successfully complete their sentence. When introducing the bill, Rochester said, “[w]ith nine in ten [employers] conducting background checks, four in five landlords, and three in five universities doing the same, we know how critical it is to give those who have served their time and paid their debt to society a clean slate and a second chance.”
The Clean Slate Act is based on the Clean Slate Initiative (CSI), a bipartisan policy model that works to expand eligibility for arrest and conviction record clearance if a person stays crime-free for a given period of time. Eight states have passed laws that meet CSI criteria: Pennsylvania, Utah, Michigan, Connecticut, Delaware, Oklahoma, Colorado and California. Illinois, North Carolina, New York, Texas and Utah have active campaigns and are working towards implementing Clean Slate Laws.
In 2018, Pennsylvania became the first state to enact Clean Slate legislation and has since sealed over 40 million records. In Pennsylvania, nearly three million people have criminal records that could prevent them from accessing necessities, employment, housing and education. By making those records unavailable to the public, the impacted individuals have a better opportunity to improve their lives, provide for their families and reduce their risk of reoffending. Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate automated sealing system expunges: cases in which individuals were not convicted; summary offense convictions (e.g., shoplifting or disorderly conduct) after 10 years; and misdemeanors after 10 years without further conviction. Pennsylvania has continued to expand on the law since. In 2020, the legislature expanded the Clean Slate Act to remove court fines and costs as a barrier to sealing. In 2022, the First Judicial District of Philadelphia found that some cases were not sealed due to data missing from the files. The court ordered the missing data to be filled in so that Clean Slate automation could seal eligible records. CSI hopes to expand Clean Slate further in Pennsylvania in 2022 with House Bill 1826. The bill would make drug felonies eligible for sealing after 10 years, make some property-related felonies eligible for sealing after 10 years and shorten waiting periods to seal misdemeanor and summary convictions.
On June 1, 2022, the New York State Senate passed the Clean Slate Act; however, it failed to pass the Assembly before the end of the 2022 legislative session. Opponents of the bill were concerned that it would not provide enough protection for victims. Republican Sen. Tom O’Mara, who voted against the bill, said, “New York is facing a crisis of rising crime and lawlessness the likes of which we have not seen in years. The crisis, caused in large part by Democrat-led cashless bail and other soft-on-crime policies, could be stopped today if they stopped pushing a radical, pro-criminal agenda.” Despite vocal opponents to the bill, New Yorkers are hopeful they will receive the votes they need to pass the Clean Slate Act into law when they introduce the bill again in the future. Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn), the bill's Senate sponsor, said, “Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve given my heart and soul to pass Clean Slate, so it goes without saying that I’m beyond disappointed that we could not get it across the finish line this year. But hope is a discipline. We will be back. We will be better. And we will win.”
By implementing the Clean Slate Act at the federal level, Congress would be helping over 70 million people across the country. Currently, the federal government lacks any meaningful way to clear federal criminal records, regardless of whether they resulted in an actual conviction. The bill has continued to gain traction at the federal level, with the House Judiciary Committee passing the Clean Slate Act on Sept. 21, 2022, by a vote of 20-12; however, it is still sitting with the Senate Judiciary Committee. As the Clean Slate Act continues to gain momentum in states, hopefully formerly incarcerated individuals will soon have access to better careers, housing, education and other resources to improve their lives.