Updated Dec. 28
As members of the General Assembly prepare to be sworn in for another two-year session, you may be wondering, what did Pennsylvania lawmakers actually accomplish this year?
In some ways, 2018 was notable for what didn’t get done. Even after a bombshell grand jury report on widespread abuse by Catholic priests, the Pa. Senate failed to take up a proposal that would let now-adult victims sue. Despite having a handful of legislators implicated in sexual misconduct scandals, several #MeToo bills were not considered. And a major grassroots effort to establish an independent commission to draw political boundaries came up short.
But among the 164 bills passed, there are a few that have the potential to make a lasting impact on the commonwealth, falling into five distinct categories.
1. A ‘Clean Slate’
In 2018, Pennsylvania became the first state to pass a “Clean Slate” law, intended to allow people convicted of minor infractions better access to jobs and housing.
Under the measure, Pa. courts will automatically seal criminal records for summary offenses and non-violent misdemeanors after 10 years. The House bill, which was crafted by Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia), and its companion in the Senate were both formally introduced by Democrat-Republican pairs, and that bipartisanship carried through the entire process. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and his general election opponent Scott Wagner both supported the initiative, as did the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity and Eagles players Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long and Torrey Smith.
According to Wolf’s office, approximately one in three working-age Pennsylvanians have criminal records. The Pennsylvania Bar Association and Community Legal Services, Inc. are offering free legal advice to people who are interested in record sealing. Find more info here.
2. No license loss for drug offenses
The legislature passed another piece of meaningful criminal justice reform this year. The law, introduced by former Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Allegheny County/Washington County), makes the suspension of a driver’s license no longer mandatory for drug convictions and offenses like buying tobacco as a minor. The measure doesn’t apply to crimes that involved driving.
Nearly 149,000 license-holders in the commonwealth were affected by the provision between 2011 and 2016, according to a lawsuit filed in January 2018 against the state by Equal Justice Under Law.
“These suspensions make social reentry nearly impossible,” the D.C.-based criminal justice reform non-profit wrote. “They deprive individuals of the ability to find and keep steady employment, to access medical care and addiction treatment services, and to care for their families during the critical period when they are trying to overcome the myriad consequences of a drug conviction and rebuild their lives.”
The law will take effect in late April 2019.
3. Firearms and domestic abuse
While the aforementioned bills moved through both chambers with limited controversy, the same could not be said of a domestic violence measure that curtailed access to firearms.
Opposition to the bill was bipartisan, and included concerns about due process rights of the accused and false allegations of abuse. In the end, the sustained advocacy from groups like the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Moms Demand Action won the day.
The legislation amended current law by:
- Shortening the window to relinquish firearms after a domestic violence conviction from 60 days to 24 hours
- Mandating those under a final protection from abuse order relinquish firearms
- Changing the third-party safekeeping rules to exclude friends and family
The law is not only notable for what it will do, but also for what it signals. Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat who represents Pittsburgh, called the legislation the most meaningful piece of gun reform to pass during his 20 years in the House. “I sense some movement,” he told The Incline after the massacre inside a Squirrel Hill synagogue. “Maybe there is a path forward.”
4. Help for survivors
That wasn’t the only bill that passed in 2018 aimed at helping domestic abuse survivors.
In December, Wolf signed legislation introduced by a bipartisan coalition of senators that requires county housing authorities to relocate survivors of domestic and sexual violence. The General Assembly also passed a bill that ensures victims of personal injury crimes like assault perpetrated by a spouse don’t have to pay that person alimony.
5. An attempt to end hazing
Moved by the death of Penn State student Timothy Piazza, who suffered fatal injuries during fraternity initiation rituals, the legislature passed a comprehensive anti-hazing law.
The legislation makes hazing offenses a felony if it results in death or serious injury. It also requires institutions of higher education, as well as middle and high schools, to create anti-hazing policies and publish them online. Schools must impose fines and other penalties for violating said policy.
The student’s father, James Piazza, said he believes the legislation can make a difference — as long as law enforcement uses it.