In some ways, Pennsylvania is an unexpected state to initiate such a reform. For one, until last November, misdemeanors weren’t eligible for sealing here, only summary records and non-convictions. On this front, the state is just catching up with national trends: Nearly every state has a mechanism to limit access to misdemeanor records, and a growing number are also including minor felonies.
And while Pennsylvania is led by Democrat Tom Wolf, who is among the country’s most progressive governors, criminal-justice reform has generally been slow in this swing state. One key factor is the size and nature of its government: With 253 full-time members, Pennsylvania’s quarrelsome state legislature is the largest in the country, and it is dominated by conservative Republicans who represent rural, red-leaning counties sandwiched between the blue strongholds of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
But when it comes to Clean Slate, Pennsylvania could open a new channel for reform. What already sets Pennsylvania apart—and what makes Clean Slate’s automated process technologically possible—is their centralized, electronic record-keeping system, which could serve as blueprint for other states.
Here, the court records from each of the 60 judicial districts are transmitted by an email-like system to AOPC. Bill Raftery, a senior analyst at the National Center for State Courts, called the Pennsylvania setup “rare,” because most states have siloed systems where the records from one court can’t be transmitted elsewhere. That’s a huge hurdle for those that want to implement an automatic sealing system, but a few are nevertheless exploring the possibility. Michigan, for example, is moving toward a centralized system, and expressed early interest in a Clean Slate-like mechanism for sealing records, said Jenna Moll, deputy director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a bipartisan group lobbying for criminal-justice reforms that supported Clean Slate. But Michigan’s potential centralized system would also need the capacity to run a query as AOPC can.
Moll said other states are watching Pennsylvania to see just how Clean Slate will unfold. “If you can do this in a way that is effective automatically, you’re going to save a ton of government resources,” she said. In Philadelphia, the wait time for a record-sealing hearing in its overburdened courthouse is currently four months. Once approved, it takes up to two months for the sealing to go in effect.
Citing a recent poll from Moll’s group showing 81 percent of Pennsylvania voters support Clean Slate, Wagner told me that “people recognized that a criminal record should not be a life sentence.” He has hired people with criminal histories for his own waste-management company. “This isn’t about gambling—it’s about seeing the person for who they are today and what they can bring to your place of work,” he said.