New law lets Pennsylvanians hide some old criminal records

HARRISBURG (AP) – Pennsylvania residents with minor criminal convictions that are at least a decade old have begun applying to seal those cases from public view under a new state law.

Interest has varied widely, with more than 1,000 people attending a set of free legal clinics on the law last weekend in Philadelphia but only one applicant filing the paperwork in heavily populous York County, for a criminal mischief conviction. Dauphin County, which includes Harrisburg, has yet to field its first such request, a court official said Friday.

The law, which took effect Nov. 14, nine months after it was enacted, pertains to less serious misdemeanors such as trespassing or vandalism. There is a $132 fee, any punishment must have been completed and the defendant must have remained arrest-free for a decade .

The record would remain accessible to law enforcement but not to the wider public and would not appear in the state courts’ online records. If the offense was accompanied by more serious charges, they would still be public. District attorneys can object to any request, and the final decisions rest with judges.

By one estimate, about a third of the state’s working-age adults have some type of criminal record, a past that can make it difficult or impossible to obtain certain types of work and limit their housing choices and educational opportunities.

“It’s not sad, because you don’t pity these people, you totally empathize with them,” said lawyer Meghan Claiborne, a member of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s young lawyers division who helped organize last weekend’s event, which overwhelmed the roughly 180 lawyers who volunteered.

Claiborne described demand as “huge” and said there were many people seeking help who had offenses that aren’t covered by the new law.

“We ran out of sheets for people to research pardons very quickly,” Claiborne said. “For a lot of people, that is the only option.”

A similar event held in Pittsburgh drew about 400 people, many more than had been expected.

“We hear so often that employers and businesses can’t find the employees that they need,” said Cynthia Shields, strategic partnership director for the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, which helped organize it. “This is a huge untapped group of talent.”

The process is different than an expungement, which permanently removes criminal records. Expungement is available, for example, for summary cases after five years have passed or for people 70 and over who have been arrest-free for 10 years.

Pardons require a much more complicated process that includes an application to the state Board of Pardons, and they do not by themselves remove a record of the offense.

There is also support in the General Assembly for a proposal known as clean slate, which would automatically remove certain low-level, nonviolent criminal convictions from someone’s record after a set period of time. That legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously in May but is dying with the end of the two-year session this month. It’s expected to get another look next year.