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Chance at redemption in Pa.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Just in time for Christmas, a gift from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to many of the 3 million Pennsylvanian’s with a criminal record.

A criminal record often carries a lifetime of consequences, and even a minor criminal record can be a serious impediment to employment, housing, education and public assistance. More than half the states nationwide, including Ohio, allow some misdemeanor and even felony convictions to be expunged or sealed. Pennsylvania has now joined the ranks of those states offering its citizens a chance at redemption.

Act 5 of 2016 took effect last month and provides an opportunity for people who have been convicted of most second- and third- degree misdemeanors – such as driving under the influence and low level thefts like shoplifting – to ask the court to seal their criminal record.

“The United States is the world leader in incarceration and a criminal record often carries a lifetime of consequences that often lead to poverty or re-incarceration,” Gov. Wolf said in a recent press release. “This law is a commonsense, positive and unprecedented step to help Pennsylvanians with minor or dated criminal records have a fighting chance at opportunities for gainful employment.”

LIMITING ACCESS

Sealing a criminal record does not make the conviction disappear; it only limits access to law enforcement and certain state licensing authorities.

The main difference between sealing criminal records and expungement is the way the records are reported and maintained. When an expungement is granted under Pennsylvania law, an order of court accompanies the expungement for all authorities to destroy the records, including photographs, fingerprints, state police records and all county records.

Under the new Pennsylvania sealing statute, law enforcement is required to maintain a record of the conviction, but is no longer allowed to disseminate the records to anyone outside of law enforcement. The order of court is labeled as “Limited Access.” This means the Pennsylvania State Police may maintain the record, but may not disseminate the record to an individual, a noncriminal justice agency or an internet website.

Pardon

A pardon is another option to erase a criminal record. Although an expungement is very limited, a pardon can erase any conviction. A pardon relieves an individual of the consequences of a criminal conviction. A pardon constitutes total forgiveness by the governor, treats the crime as if it never happened and allows a job applicant to deny she was ever convicted of the crime.

Similar to Pennsylvania, Ohio adult convictions cannot be “expunged” or completely erased from a criminal record. Ohio utilizes a similar court ordered process known as “sealing a criminal record.”

In order to be eligible to have a criminal record sealed in Pennsylvania, the following conditions must be met:

Free of arrest and conviction for a period of 10 years;

Never convicted of certain crimes (felonies, first- degree misdemeanors some assault and sex offenses);

Have fewer than four misdemeanor convictions; and

All fines and costs associated with the conviction have been paid.

The benefits of having a criminal record sealed are compelling. Most states make criminal history information accessible to the general public through the internet, making it extremely easy for employers to disqualify applicants based on old or minor convictions.

PUBLIC HOUSING

Many public housing agencies deny eligibility for federally assisted housing based on even minor criminal convictions. Private landlords can lawfully refuse to rent housing to persons with certain criminal convictions.

Gun ownership is widely restricted after a criminal conviction.

Even students with convictions for minor drug offenses can feel the pain. The Higher Education Act of 1998 makes students convicted of drug-related offenses ineligible for any grant, loan or work assistance.

This holiday season, if you, or someone you know, has a minor misdemeanor conviction in Pennsylvania and $132 for the filing fee, treat yourself to a Christmas gift that promises to bring more than just a smile to your face.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino