(Photo by Bobbi I. Booker)
Individuals with criminal records often encounter barriers to work, decent housing and have a higher recidivism rate — and approximately 77 million Americans have a criminal record.
On Friday, June 28, Pennsylvania became the first state in the nation to automatically clear old and minor criminal records through the new Clean Slate law.
According to Katie Svoboda-Kindle, 33, staff attorney at Community Legal Services (CLS), about 30 million cases — half of the court’s total database — will be eligible for auto-sealing of criminal records. That represents one in three Pennsylvanians with a criminal record. CLS believes that in the first month alone of Clean Slate, more charges will be cleared in Pennsylvania than have ever been cleared before nationwide.
“We don’t have the numbers of how many individuals are going to have their records sealed, the numbers we have is that it is as many as 30 million cases and 40 million charges, because there can be multiple charges per case,” Svoboda-Kindle said. “Basically, we’re imagining it could be millions of people in Pennsylvania, or it could be around a million people in Pennsylvania, based on that.”
West Philadelphia-based community leader and organizer Khalia A. Robinson is a Clean Slate candidate who vividly recalls the moments that led to her 2006 arrest. The former radio promoter and part-time musician said she was six-months pregnant when her extended belly knocked over a vendor’s illegal CDs, which drew the attention of passing police. She was charged — but not convicted — with trademark counterfeiting, resulting in the immediate creation of a criminal record that has shadowed her for a dozen years.
“Yeah, that’s been haunting me,” said Robinson, now 40. “My case was dismissed without prejudice, but, you know, I can say it definitely probably kept me out of some of those corporate offices I was trying to get into.”
Even if the charges are dropped or the person is found not guilty, the record does not always go away. That record can then be viewed on the courts’ public web site, and through background checks by employers, landlords and others.However, employers are not allowed to use sealed cases as a basis for denying employment, and individuals with sealed records can respond to questions by employers, landlords, or schools as if they do not have a record.
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Robinson, who has served as a Raise The Bar Philly workshop facilitator for seven years, pointed out the implicit bias criminal record holders of color like herself are challenged with.
“One thing that I see is another side of this, and it kind of caters to a stereotype,” Robinson said. “You know, I tend to be very passionate and intense with my emotion when I’m working on something. And, when you come in [to a potential employer] and then they see your record, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s that angry Black woman right there.’ So, I kind of live with that stereotype. But, you know, it honestly, it kind of pushed me in another direction to want to help other people, too.”
CLS has launched an awareness campaign to inform the public of the Clean Slate timeline because the courts have a full year – until June 27, 2020 – to finish sealing all of the cases. The court will seal 2.5 million cases every month, starting with the most recent eligible cases and then work backward through time until all eligible cases are sealed.
Clean Slate will help thousands of Pennsylvanians, such as Robinson, get a fresh start at opportunity and to move forward with their lives.
“The last thing I want to say, Robinson said, “is to give you my catchphrase: It’s time to raise the bar, Philly, because we can’t just set it.”-30-
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