A bipartisan pair of U.S. Senators are pushing new legislation — The Clean Slate Act — that would automatically seal federal conviction records for low-level, non-violent drug offenders. Criminal justice advocates say it has the potential to be revolutionary for tens of millions of Americans whose records currently lock them out of employment opportunities, along with federal education and housing benefits.
The measure is being pushed by Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). It’s based off of similar legislation that Casey’s seen work on the ground in his home state of Pennsylvania. It became law there in June 2018 — the first such experiment nationwide. It took effect in 2019, and by June 2020 around 35 million Pennsylvanians had their criminal records wiped clean.
“For far too long, criminal records have represented a life sentence for Americans who have turned their lives around,” Holly Harris, the president and executive director of Justice Action Network, said. “The Clean Slate Act offers hope to people whose search for a fresh start should be met with support instead of barriers, and opportunity in place of stigma.”
The reason the Pennsylvania experiment with this is being taken nationally is, in part, because this is a national problem. More than 100 million Americans — or one-third of the populous — currently are saddled with a criminal record that hangs over them wherever they go.
About 90% of employers, 80% of landlords, and 60% of colleges screen out applicants based upon their past criminal records, according to the Center for American Progress.
“Automated record sealing is a critical step in the ongoing fight for criminal justice reform. Too many Americans are not given a second chance at life because they are burdened by criminal records for nonviolent convictions or arrests that did not result in a conviction,” Sen. Casey said. “With nearly half of U.S. children having at least one parent with a criminal record, automatically sealing these records helps us invest in our nation’s future by ensuring millions of parents with minor criminal histories, and their families, aren’t prohibited from achieving a successful life.”
That’s why it’s important to advocates that this effort remain bipartisan. Estimates the measure could boost the U.S. economy by $87 billion per year make that goal easier, but many conservatives say it’s about more than just money.
“Those who have been charged with low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors oftentimes face significant barriers to employment, housing, and other necessities, even after they’ve paid their debt to society,” Sen. Ernst said. “This bipartisan legislation is a commonsense criminal justice reform to give these individuals a second chance, while keeping our communities safe.”
Advocates say the measure could help fill the millions of American jobs that often sit unfilled because so many citizens have records that follow them everywhere they go.
“If our goal is to reduce recidivism and improve the lives of millions of Americans, we cannot allow hard-working citizens who served their time to be defined by their worst mistakes in life. With an inerasable criminal record, they are locked out of the American Dream. It becomes harder to get a good-paying job, pursue education or training, and own a home. This creates a system that leaves many hopeless and trapped in a cycle of poverty, and it is time we broke that cycle,” Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) said at the time she introduced her House bill. “The Clean Slate Act would ensure that people who pay their debt to society and stay on the straight and narrow can earn a second shot at a better life for themselves and their family.”
While ending mass incarceration remains a goal for many advocates and policy makers, proponents say clearing out the nation’s overcrowded jails and prisons is just a start.
“In Pennsylvania alone, approximately three million individuals, or over a third of working age citizens, have criminal records. Although many of these are the result of low-level, nonviolent offenses, criminal records can present a significant obstacle to employment, housing, and education,” Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) added. “I look forward to working alongside Representative Blunt Rochester to ensure that those in our country who made mistakes in the past but have rehabilitated themselves and paid their debts to society, receive a clean slate and an opportunity to fully participate and contribute to our country’s economy.”
Criminal justice reform advocates are heralding these lawmakers in Washington for following the lead of Pennsylvania and other states.
“I am thrilled to see Congress continuing to learn from the states when it comes to criminal justice reform,” Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said, “following the bipartisan momentum growing in the states for criminal record-clearing and other important second-chance reforms to help people get back to work, lift families out of poverty, and interrupt the cycle of economic instability and recidivism trapping countless individuals and families in the justice system.”