Clean slate: How a new Pennsylvania law helps block more criminal records from public view

Pennsylvanians whose ancient, minor criminal records have continued to haunt them are getting a break that could help them land a better job and find better housing.

The state’s Clean Slate Law, which blocks many criminal records from public view, was amended recently to allow records to be sealed even if fines and court fees remain unpaid.

All court costs previously had to be paid to qualify.

That left many convicts unable to escape their past and put them in a cycle they couldn’t break. To be able to pay their fines and fees, they needed a good job. But they often couldn’t get one because they couldn’t pass a background check.

It was sort of a debtor’s prison without bars.

“The whole point of this is to find a job,” the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, told me Wednesday.

Fines and fees still will be owed, and counties will continue trying to collect them. But that debt won’t preclude cases from automatically being removed from public access if they meet the other criteria under the Clean Slate Law.

“It’s important and it’s common sense public policy,” Delozier said.

It’s also a rare example of bipartisanship by the Pennsylvania Legislature, which passed the bill unanimously. The final vote occurred Oct. 21. Gov. Tom Wolf will sign the bill, his spokeswoman said.

This is the kind of criminal justice reform the state should be pursuing. Removing barriers that allow people to find good-paying jobs is a victory for everyone.

The poverty rate could be reduced, lowering the burden on government assistance programs and social services. Higher wages mean higher tax collections for governments. Higher wages also make it more likely that people will be able to pay off any fines or fees they owe the courts, completely satisfying their debt to society.

The change also could open doors for people to move into better housing, as landlords often run background checks.