Mike Lee, DAO Interim Director of legislation and government affairs

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One of Larry Krasner’s stated goals when he was elected Philadelphia District Attorney was to reform the criminal justice system. Five months into his tenure, it’s apparent those efforts won’t be limited to moves within the office itself.

Several District Attorney’s Office staff members have been expanding their efforts by aligning themselves with community action or legislation they believe will help advance reform.

In early May, Mike Lee, DAO interim director of legislation and government affairs, attended a press conference to speak in support of expungement bills being put forth by state Reps. James Roebuck, Morgan Cephas and Angel Cruz, all Democrats representing districts that cover Philadelphia.

The DAO was invited to participate in the press conference by Rep. Roebuck, Lee told Billy Penn, and readily agreed.

“The District Attorney’s Office has a duty to prosecute and to prevent crime,” he said, explaining that the office believes robust expungement laws help further that mission.

“Showing support for this type of legislation,” Lee said, “meets our duty to prevent crime.”

Though not exactly the same, the legislators’ proposals run parallel to a new policy rolled out by the DAO at the start of the month, which directs the office to immediately support expungement requests from several classes of individuals:

  • Those convicted only of a summary charge
  • Those who have completed a diversion program
  • Those who were acquitted (yes, even if you’re found not guilty, you still have “a record” — unless it’s subsequently cleared)

Cephas’s legislation deals with a different cohort, and different kind of infraction — school suspensions.

Her bill, HB 2294, would amend Pennsylvania public school code to allow districts the opportunity to expunge student’s suspension records under certain conditions. To be eligible, the original offense must have been nonviolent, some kind of community service or a resource based alternative must be completed, and the the student must display good behavior over a specific period of time (to be determined by the district in question).

The point, Cephas said, is to help make sure students are able to apply to post-secondary institutions (aka colleges and vocational schools) without fear of rejections that stem from past minor infractions.

Lee alluded to issues around the school-to-prison pipeline, staying the DAO wants to stand behind efforts to break stereotypes and make the expungement process more fair.

“We know that unfortunately there is a disproportionate rate of young students of color being suspended, compared to their counterparts,” he said. “We are looking to help the school district create a mechanism of restorative justice.”

Rep. Cruz’s’ bill, HB 659, would require the expungement of people’s records who are arrested for mistaken identity. Another piece of legislation currently pending is state Rep. Joanna McClinton’s HB 512, which looks to allow automatic expungement following acquittal for certain criminal cases in both juveniles and adults.

“The expungement bills are part of a wave of national legislation towards a better understanding the collateral consequences of criminal records, and minimizing the impact an arrest may have on individuals, families, communities, and cities,” Lee said.

For the District Attorney’s Office, he said, the challenge is having more “consistency” when approaching criminal records.

“Our ultimate goal of our internal expungement policy is to make it more efficient,” he explained, and to ensure that when people complete diversion programs, they get the expungements they’re entitled to. “We are trying to reduce mass incarceration.”.