From our partner, Community Legal Services
Starting November 14, thousands of people in Pennsylvania could gain a new opportunity to get back to work. Act 5, which took effect starting this morning, is Pennsylvania’s most recent effort to address the nationwide problem of unfair and excessive employment discrimination against people with minor and very old criminal records. Individuals with such criminal records often find that their backgrounds prevent them from obtaining housing or jobs for which they are otherwise qualified. Under the new law, adults will be able to seal certain low-level offenses on their criminal records after the passage of 10 years if no other arrest has occurred, reducing the impact of employment discrimination based upon stereotypical assumptions about people with minor convictions.
Employment discrimination based on criminal records is a widespread problem. Since about a third of Americans are arrested by age 23, millions of adults begin their careers hampered by minor criminal records, and a disproportionate number end up struggling with unemployment or stuck in dead-end jobs. For many, their difficulties arise because employers refuse to hire people with even minor or decades-old criminal histories, blocking people from jobs for which they might otherwise by ideal candidates.
Such criminal-record based employment discrimination falls hardest on African Americans and other marginalized groups, who are arrested in disproportionate numbers compared to others in the United States, and for whom the stigma of a record comes in addition to racial and other types of discrimination. Preliminary data suggests that in addition to facing criminal record discrimination more often, African Americans and others may take a harsher hit to their employment chances than their white counterparts, exacerbating the problem.
Act 5 addresses criminal record discrimination by allowing a court to seal certain misdemeanor convictions once ten years have passed without arrest. While sealing a conviction does not completely remove it—law enforcement can still access the record—it does remove the stigmatizing information from the general public, including prospective employers. Previously, the only way to clear a misdemeanor conviction was to apply for a pardon from the governor, a discretionary process that takes at least four years even after five to ten years have passed since the conviction. Act 5’s faster and easier sealing process will enable far more people to move past their minor criminal records and improve their work opportunities.
Still, Act 5 has its flaws. The eligible offenses are very limited, and eligibility is very complicated and narrow. Record-sealing is not automatic, and some eligible individuals may lack the resources or knowledge to take advantage of the law. In addition, the 10-year waiting period for sealing an offense must not include any new arrests, even ones that did not result in any conviction. And felony offenses still cannot be sealed no matter how many years have passed. Lastly, no one is certain just how much criminal record-sealing helps people find employment: many people with criminal records face other types of employment barriers, and people who have struggled for years to find work due to their records may have long gaps in their employment history that can limit their success even once their records have been sealed.
Yet despite these imperfections, Act 5 represents a major step forward for Pennsylvania’s approach to criminal records, and could provide a model for other states struggling with the same issues of discrimination and employment. Community Legal Services continues to advocate for employment protection for Pennsylvania’s poorest residents, those with and without criminal records, and has been working in Harrisburg to advocate for the Clean Slate Act, which would fix some of the flaws in Act 5 and go even further in allowing people to move past their old and minor criminal convictions. In the meantime, starting on November 14, thousands of Pennsylvanians gained a new tool to boost their odds of employment and leave their pasts behind.
To learn whether you qualify to take advantage of Act 5, or to receive training on the law for your organization, contact Community Legal Services.