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Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Scott Wagner was walking through Philadelphia recently when a piece of public art in Center City struck him. It was part of Mural Arts’ “Restorative Justice” program, and the mural indicated that 70 million Americans have a criminal record. Some reports actually peg the number of Americans with a criminal record at 100 million people or more.
“That is 70 million to 100 million Americans that employers or landlords are turning away from good-paying jobs or an apartment for their family,” Wagner said, “simply because the person made a mistake years ago.”
So for the second time, Wagner, aiming for his party’s blessing as the 2018 challenger to Gov. Tom Wolf from York, is working with Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Phila., to re-introduce legislation they say will improve the criminal justice system by making it easier for some individuals with criminal records (of only the nonviolent misdemeanor variety) to reintegrate.
They’re an unlikely pair: One is a wealthy businessman and a conservative firebrand who’s been called “Donald Trump-lite” and is in the midst of a run for governor. The other is a longtime Philadelphia politician who ran for mayor two years ago and is an ingrained member of the Democratic elite in both Philly and Harrisburg.
But they agree that Pennsylvania should become the first state in the country to pass legislation that would automatically seal the criminal records of non-violent offenders if they remain crime-free for a period of time. They’re reintroducing their “Clean Slate” legislation this session and announced this week that they have 25 cosponsors representing both sides of the aisle — that’s more than half the Senate already.
The bill would automatically seal criminal records of those convicted of first, second and third-degree misdemeanors after a period of time that depends on the seriousness of the crime. It would also make it so that those charged with misdemeanors but not convicted would have their records automatically sealed.
Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Phila., said he will work with Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, to introduce a companion bill in the House, though it’s the Senate bill that’s so far gotten the most attention.
While criminal justice reform has traditionally been seen as an issue championed largely by urban Democrats, there’s been a conservative movement to push for reform. The platform adopted by national Republicans this year, though it still invoked a “law and order” feel, still pushed for reducing incarceration rates.
It just so happens that a handful of criminal justice reforms are no longer much of a political gamble, either.
Sam Hofstetter, a pollster with Public Opinion Strategies, unveiled a new poll this week showing widespread support in Pennsylvania for legislation like the Clean Slate bill. Hofstetter said the January survey of 500 registered voters in Pa. showed 81 percent of voters would support a proposal that would automatically seal non-violent criminal records, and 66 percent said they’d be more likely to re-elect a legislator who supports criminal justice reforms.
“You don’t see polling data like that often,” Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Bucks, said. “When you get 80 and 90 percent bipartisan support on the poll, that sends a strong message to the legislature that we need to change… our philosophy in regards to how we deal with the criminal justice system.”
Wagner and Williams have secured the blessing of Greenleaf, the powerful Republican from the Philly suburbs who’s chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Greenleaf said he and others had a “tough on crime” law-making mentality for the last 20 years, but the recidivism rate in Pennsylvania is still at more than 60 percent. That, he says, is a “failure.”
“Punishment without rehabilitation is an absolute failure,” he said. “If you don’t give people an option, if you treat them badly, they will act badly. If you take options away from them, they are hopeless… We need to give these individuals and people a second chance.”
Williams touted the bipartisan nature of the legislation, saying though it’s backed by lawmakers who “come from significantly different parts of Pennsylvania,” they’ve come together because “this problem with the judicial system is not statewide, but is nationally seen as not working.”
“People recognize the hindrance a criminal record presents for individuals,” Wagner added. “People also recognize that a criminal record should not be a life sentence.”