Few putting Act 5 law — shielding criminal records from public — to good use
A relatively new state law allows some people convicted of nonviolent crimes to have their criminal records shielded from potential employers and landlords, but few are taking advantage of the law.
Pennsylvania Act 5 took effect in 2016 to give people a second chance by limiting public access to certain criminal records, although police and courts still would be able to access all records.
Those eligible would have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to nonviolent misdemeanor crimes. They also must have no arrests for 10 years after their conviction and cannot have any felony arrests on their records.
All jail terms, probation and fines related to the conviction they want hidden must be completed.
Eligible cases include some drug cases, criminal trespassing, vandalism and harassment.
They even include cases in which the person has spent up to two years in jail.
District attorney offices must review and approve each application.
About 20 people have filed limited-access applications in Allegheny County since the law was signed by the governor, said Darlene Skoski, who directs the county's expungement office.
“Only five of the 20 have been approved,” she said.
Several expungement clinics have been held by the county's bar association and some Duquesne University School of Law professors and students.
Nicole Nevel-Steighner, who handles expungement duties in Butler County, said the Act 5 process is more difficult than some people might think.
Nevel-Steighner said only three Butler residents have applied so far.
“It's a great program, but not as helpful for everyone,” she said. “The 10-year requirement is tough for some people,” she said.
Act 5 applicants must pay about $200 for the application and other court paperwork in addition to any costs if they hire an attorney, she said.
No one has applied for the program in Armstrong County, said Brenda C. George, who directs the prothonotary and clerk of courts offices there.
Figures were not available for Westmoreland County.
An estimated 15,000 are eligible in Philadelphia alone, according to a published report.
District attorneys offices usually contact police in the municipality where an applicant lives.
“It has to be done on a case by case basis,” said New Kensington police Chief Jim Klein.
“We have to investigate. Yes. The person must not have been charged during 10 years. But they often have had a run-in with the police. To not check on this, we are setting ourselves up for a catastrophe,” he said.
Act 5 advocates fear many eligible people don't know about having records excluded, and many other residents don't know it requires a long period of good behavior before an exclusion may be requested.
Act 5 does not affect summary charges, which have been eligible for expungement after five years for some time.
Without the provisions of Act 5, the only other option for some was to seek a state pardon.
But that is a complicated, sometimes expensive, process that can take four years or more and is successful only if the state board of pardons approves it.
“We've all made mistakes in our lives. Why withhold forgiveness?” asked Duquesne University law professor Tracey McCants Lewis.
She directs a clinic for Duquesne law students to help low-level offenders get eligible court records removed from public view.
Even people without a conviction but who were charged sometimes run into the same problems as convicted people, Lewis said.
“Some landlords still don't know that a charge isn't the same thing as a conviction,” she said. This created barriers to safe and affordable housing as well as a job,” she said.
Lewis said the people she helps want to work.
One man told Lewis he made a mistake when he was young, stayed away from crime for decades but continues to pay for the conviction by only being able to get low-paying jobs.
“He said he never had a real job, what he called a ‘W-2 job.' Before his record was expunged, he only was able to get an under-the-table job,” she said.