PA May Make It Easier For Non-Violent Criminals To Get A Fresh Start

Jul 2, 2017

2004 was a tough year for Ronald.

In less than a month, he was arrested twice — once for theft and once for conspiracy.

"The police came up, and my brother was selling drugs and they said I yelled out, 'here's 5-0.' The second one was a retail theft. I tried to steal a pocketbook out of Neiman Marcus," said Ronald. NewsWorks is withholding his last name to protect his ongoing efforts to leave his criminal past behind.

Ronald, in his early 20s then, was later convicted of both misdemeanor charges. 

They've haunted – and frustrated – him ever since.

"I'm not making excuses for my mistakes because they're my mistakes and I take them on," said Ronald. "But how many times can I be punished for the same mistake?"

A fresh start

Enter Clean Slate, a bill moving through Pennsylvania's General Assembly that's could benefit thousands of state residents like Ronald.

The measure automatically seals all non-violent misdemeanor convictions after 10 years for those who haven't committed another crime since.

The bill enjoys bipartisan support, including from Gov. Tom Wolf.

Ronald, 38, wants nothing more than to see Clean Slate signed into law. Over the past 13 years, his criminal past has been the source of considerable disappointment and pain.

He still remembers the first time his record cost him an engineering job. It was the first gig he applied for after putting himself through school.

He cried the whole drive back to Philadelphia from Delaware.

"It's funny because once I accomplished these [engineering] licenses, I just knew life for me, I made it. Mentally, I thought I made it. And then life gave me a hard reality check. Like the fight is just beginning. You not even in the fight," said Ronald.

At times, he said the pile of rejections warped his sense of self.

"You start to believe what they say. Maybe he's worthless. Maybe it's just not for us. Maybe you are that person from 2004," said Ronald.

These days, the Germantown resident owns his own heating and cooling company. He's also chief engineer at a chemical company. And so, his interest in seeing Clean Slate pass isn't economic.

It's even deeper than that.

"For me, it would be getting my name back. It would be that everybody seen that you made a mistake and from your mistake on, you've been a model citizen. Not a parking ticket, not nothing, jaywalking, nothing. That would mean everything to me," said Ronald.

Expanding on Act 5

In November, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed Act 5. The measure enables people to have some misdemeanor convictions sealed if you have maintained a clean record for 10 years and a judge approves your petition. With the average time for getting a hearing at roughly four months, it can take up to a year to get a record officially sealed.

The new legislation, Clean Slate, is similar to Act 5 but it will seal all types of non-violent misdemeanor convictions and eliminate the need to hire an attorney.

Pardon me

Before Act 5, the only option for a person with a misdemeanor conviction was to do what Shakia did — request a pardon from the governor. The complex process takes years, often only to find out you've been rejected.

Shakia had more luck, but it took the young mother more than five years to get rid of a nearly 15-year-old conviction for shoplifting.

When she was 18, she stole some clothing and other items for her and her infant son.

"I just thought it was stupid to be honest," said Shakia of the pardon process. "People make mistakes and people change. So for a little conviction for retail theft, it was like seriously? Seriously?"

Applying for a pardon includes writing an essay detailing the circumstances of your crime and your positive accomplishments since then. You also have to get people to write letters extolling your character.

If you're selected, you argue your case before the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, which makes a recommendation to the governor.

Shakia got that chance last summer. After hearing her out, all four members approved of her request.

"I believe when I told my story, it was heartfelt. And they also seen my pain, the struggle and the hindrance that I had with the conviction on my record. Because there were a lot of things it held me back from. Certain jobs. Not even just jobs, careers. My education," she said.

Shakia, who works security, just recently picked up her signed pardon, not long before her birthday.

"I got the best birthday gift already: a new start. I'm gonna get it laminated and I'm gonna hang it up like it's a degree," she said.

Despite her success, Shakia hopes no one else in her situation ever has to go through the same nerve-wracking and time-consuming experience of trying to get a pardon.

Clean Slate was meticulously crafted with the aim of moving it through the Senate and House with relative ease.

The bill passed the Senate on Wednesday. It's moving slower through the House. 

This story is part of the Reentry Project, an unprecedented collaboration among 15 of Philadelphia's general interest newsrooms and community and ethnic media organizations to reveal and investigate credible responses to the challenges of recidivism and reentry. You can find more stories from other partners in the project athttps://thereentryproject.org/

Find this report and others at the site of our partner, NewsWorks