Pennsylvania began sealing millions criminal records on Friday as part of its “Clean Slate” law, passed last year. The effort is, according to Gov. Tom Wolf, critical to help people with aging, nonviolent criminal records move on to new opportunities in employment, education and housing.
Many states have records-expungement laws dating even back to the 1970s, but insofar as it can, Pennsylvania has promised to seal the records of those meeting its law’s criteria automatically, rather than requiring people to apply manually. While the new law puts Pennsylvania ahead of other states pursuing criminal justice reforms, it also presents the court system’s IT staff with a winding technological challenge.
Some 40 million offenses and 30 million cases — roughly half of those in the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts’ databases — fall under the law’s provisions, which direct sealing of records for people charged with summary or misdemeanor offenses that included less than two years of prison time at least 10 years ago. Cases in which charges were dropped or defendants were found not guilty will also be wiped from public view. Schools, hospitals, law enforcement and banks that rely on FBI background checks will still be able to see the records, but they should disappear from public-records sites.
Amy Ceraso, the court system’s IT director, told StateScoop that when the law was passed last year, her team asked the legislature for a year to develop the processes that will pluck out which cases should be sealed and another year to implement the sealing, citing the complexity of the courts’ data storage systems. Her team will have until next June to complete its task.
“We want to make sure it’s as accurate as possible,” Ceraso said.
More recent cases will be easier to sort out, she said, but as they crawl back in time, the state’s criminal records become spottier.
Russel Montchal, Ceraso’s assistant director, explained that hundreds of courts across Pennsylvania today share information statewide. But before they were merged in 2006, many courts stored cases on their own systems, using their own data structures. There were no standards for how data was recorded, and crucial information like financial records may be missing. The combination of those record-keeping inconsistencies and the number of cases now required to be sealed presents a challenge for the court systems’ IT team, Montchal said.
“We’ve never done this kind of volume in a short period of time,” he said. “We know there’s going to be issues that as you get older, there could be incomplete data sets.”
Where data is unclear, those affected will still be able to apply manually to have their records sealed, but the spirit of Pennsylvania’s law is to ensure that as many as people as possible won’t have to go through the process manually. In states where the process has not been automated, applying to have one’s record sealed can be confusing and expensive, according to the Center for American Progress.
Code for America, a nonprofit that helps governments improve their technology, has made records sealing one of its priorities, initially developing a tool in 2016, called Clear My Record, that connects those interested in reducing or dismissing minor charges, often marijuana-related convictions, with lawyers who can guide them through the process. The group piloted a new tool in several California counties last year to facilitate automatic record sealing.
Evonne Silva, Code for America’s senior director of criminal justice and workforce development, told StateScoop in an email that the petition-based process for sealing a record was not designed “to provide relief to the millions of people who are eligible.”
“Automatic record clearance provides an equitable chance for millions of people and their families [to] improve the conditions of their lives by finding work that pays a living wage, securing stable housing, participating in their children’s education, and investing in their own,” Silva wrote.
Pennsylvania’s move toward automatic record clearing could be followed by others. Groups in Colorado, Michigan, South Carolina, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island are advocating for similar policies.