Pennsylvania Becomes First State to Use Automated System to Expunge Criminal Records

David Alary/

After passing the country’s first ‘clean slate’ bill, Pennsylvania is debuting a system that will automatically clear the records of all who are eligible.

On Friday, Pennsylvania became the first state to deploy an automated system to seal criminal records for all qualifying formerly incarcerated or arrested people in the state. In the first month of operation alone, the state estimates that 2.5 million cases will be sealed, with an additional 27.5 million in the year that follows. 

Gov. Tom Wolf signed the Clean Slate bill into law one year ago today, and the automated system was built in the following months. 

Though some localities have used similar technology to help people submit petitions to clear their records, no state has automatically cleared the records of all eligible people before. Advocates say the milestone will bring thousands of Pennsylvanians back into the workforce, make it easier for people with criminal records to find housing, and open educational opportunities for them.

Though judges in Pennsylvania grant expungement in the manual petition system around 90% of the time, less than 10% of the people who are eligible to have their records sealed actually do. That’s because many people don’t even know they can have their records expunged—and if they do, the process is time consuming for both the petitioner and the courts. People with criminal records need to find a lawyer or navigate the highly complex legal process alone. They must painstakingly prepare a petition loaded with docket numbers for a district attorney to review. If there is no objection, a court hearing is scheduled and if the judge grants the request, a county clerk has to manually enter the clearance into the court system.

Sharon Dietrich, the litigation director for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, was inspired to design the Clean Slate legislation by the caseload of her organization. “Having a criminal record is by far the most common reason people come to CLS for help,” Dietrich said. To deal with the overwhelming number of expungement cases they handled, the lawyers at CLS developed an automated system to scrape court websites and file petitions. 

While the system helped CLS, courts soon couldn’t keep up, and wait times for a hearing went from a few weeks to five months in some cases. “If you were a person looking for work, that was simply too long. We realized that if we were ever going to make a dent in the pile, we had to scale an automated process for everyone,” she said. The idea for Clean Slate was born.

Dietrich worked with a bipartisan coalition to design and push the legislation, including the left-leaning Center for American Progress, conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and Koch Industries, and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. “Many of those we worked with were not our usual allies,” Dietrich said. “We had no serious opposition, which is remarkable given that this is a brand new idea that hasn’t really been tested anywhere.”

The two opposing candidates in the 2018 gubernatorial election both expressed their support for the bill, and when it was brought before the state legislature, it passed with only two no votes. More than 80% of Pennsylvania residents were also in favor, possibly due to high profile supporters of the bill, including Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles, who went to the state capitol to lobby for the measure. Clean Slate was featured on ESPN that night. “How else can you get publicity like that?” Dietrich said. “It really brought visibility to the general public.”

‘A Totally Bizarre Collection of Supporters’

The route to Clean Slate’s passage, while relatively clear, was not without hurdles. At one point, the bill was stalled in committee in the Pennsylvania House. Holly Harris, the director of the bipartisan Justice Action Network, which lobbied for the bill, met with the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, Rep. Ronald Marisco. In the meeting, Harris found out that Marisco was a passionate fan of sports at his alma mater, Ohio State.

So Harris contacted Maurice Clarett, a former Ohio State football player who served time in prison, and flew him out to Pennsylvania to meet with Marisco. “It was the one critical voice that we were able to pull in that we knew could change everything,” Harris said. “He talked about redemption, was able to change hearts, and the bill sailed through committee after that.”

Harris credited the passage of the bill to a “totally bizarre collection of supporters.” Before working at JAN, Harris was general counsel of the Republican Party in Kentucky. “If you told me I’d be working with the ACLU or the Center for American Progress one day, I would not have believed you,” she said. “But I can’t imagine doing anything else now, because this goes so much deeper than partisanship. It can change lives.”

All those who pushed for the program had different explanations as to why it received such overwhelming support. Dietrich said it was because Clean Slate was a relatively modest law, covering only misdemeanors, and that bolder proposals in other states might face greater challenges. Harris cited the work of influential organizations like the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce for their aggressive support.

Dietrich also said that the implementation of Clean Slate in Pennsylvania was relatively cheap. The state police used a vendor to build their program, at an estimated cost of $195,000, and the courts used in-house tech experts at an estimated cost of $50,000. Dietrich said the bill’s appropriation doesn’t include funding to send out 30 million notifications about case clearances, because that would have made it extremely costly. Instead, the state is looking to public education to let people know about the change.

The Impact

The most common crimes eligible for clearance through the automated system in Pennsylvania will be DUIs, minor theft, and drug possession. Records that include cases where charges were dropped will also be cleared, which Dietrich said is important because “a lot of people get rejected from jobs even for dropped charges, especially if they were serious.” Crimes that require registration on a sex offender registry or involve the posession of a weapon are among the most common reasons that would exclude someone from expungment. Those that have outstanding court fees are also ineligible.

Dietrich said that while it’s unlikely Clean Slate will fully close the “second chance gap” between people eligible for record clearance and those who receive it, due to imperfect data, she thinks they’ll get very close. Harris said that regardless, thousands of people will get another chance. “One in three people in the country now have a record. It’s not just an obscure minority impacted by this,” Harris said. “It’s every family in Pennsylvania.”

But the benefits of Clean Slate, Harris said, go beyond those who have criminal records and their families. “Public safety data is on our side in states that have improved reentry policies. We’ll see lower crime from the implementation of Clean Slate,” she said. “And you can’t get away from the economic argument. Policies like this will put people back to work at a time when Pennsylvania has a dearth of skilled labor.”

Rebecca Vallas, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and a co-designer of Pennsylvania’s law, stressed that Clean Slate is just one of several remedies states can pursue. “In an ideal world, Clean Slate goes hand-in-hand with occupational licensing reform and the Ban the Box movement, both of which are policies that remove a range of opportunity barriers that people with records face,” she said. 

Spreading Outside Pennsylvania

Following Pennsylvania, Utah became the second state to pass Clean Slate legislation in 2019. California, Connecticut, Arkansas, and Delaware legislators are all considering similar bills, and Michigan is set to join them soon. With all these bills, the two main throughlines are bipartisan support, and the use of technology to automate expungement, meaning a district attorney or a judge will no longer be required to review petitions. Vallas explained that differences mainly arise in the eligibility criteria. “The types of records that are covered vary, the amount of time someone has to be arrest-free varies, and the systems for accepting expungement vary,” she said.

So the system implemented in Pennsylvania, for example, wouldn't necessarily work in other places. “We knew from the beginning that a one-size-fits-all policy wouldn’t work for all 50 states,” Vallas said. “Each criminal justice landscape is different.”

Clean Slate has also caught on at the federal level. Legislation in the U.S House that would expunge marijuana and other drug offenses has been introduced by Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat from Delaware, and Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican from Pennsylvania who previously worked in the Pennsylvania State Senate. “It’s cool to see Congress learning from the states,” Vallas said. “But it’s even more exciting to see policymakers move from state to federal bodies and carry these ideas with them.”

Harris even has hopes that the bipartisan cooperation that comes from working on Clean Slate efforts will spread beyond criminal justice reform. “Federal legislation is a tough nut to crack, but now there are clear partners across the aisle,” she said. “Putting people over politics is the type of cooperation that history will smile on. This could really have a lasting impact.”