STATEMENT: CAP’s Rebecca Vallas Applauds Pennsylvania for Eliminating Fines and Fees as a Barrier to Clean Slate

Washington, D.C. — Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania General Assembly unanimously enacted H.B. 440, which builds upon the state’s first-in-the-nation clean slate legislation by ensuring that court-ordered financial obligations no longer serve as a barrier to automatic record clearance through clean slate, nor to record-clearing by court petition. Following the passage of the bill, Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and one of the co-originators of the clean slate model, issued the following statement:

A criminal record should never be a life sentence to poverty. Nor should inability to pay court fines and fees stand in the way of a second chance. Thanks to the enactment of H.B. 440, all Pennsylvanians who are otherwise eligible for record-clearing—whether automatic record-clearing through the state’s first-in-the-nation clean slate law or by court petition—will now be able to get their records cleared, regardless of whether they can afford to pay fines and fees.

State officials estimate that 50 percent more otherwise eligible conviction records statewide, and 75 percent more otherwise eligible conviction records in Philadelphia, will now be eligible for automatic clearance through clean slate—paving the way for millions more Pennsylvanians to move on with their lives and have a fair shot at finding a decent job, safe and stable housing, and more. Pennsylvania’s 2018 Clean Slate Act has already sealed significantly more than 35 million cases in the year since the law took effect, helping more than 1 million Pennsylvanians move on with their lives.

I applaud Pennsylvania House Minority Whip Jordan Harris (D), state Rep. Sharon Delozier (R)—the bipartisan dynamic duo who championed the original 2018 Clean Slate Act—as well as their colleagues in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, who embraced H.B. 440 in a rare unanimous vote, for taking this important and much-needed step, and I urge the growing number of states advancing clean slate and other record-clearing measures of their own to follow suit and ensure second chances don’t come with an income test. And CAP applauds our longtime partner Community Legal Services of Philadelphia for their tireless efforts to ensure fines and fees are no longer a barrier to record-clearing.

An inability to pay is the predominant reason for outstanding court debt. According to Pennsylvania court data, 70 percent of people who owe fines and fees are unemployed, poor, elderly, disabled, and/or receiving public assistance. According to the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Office , the median balance owed in Philadelphia in municipal court is $275, and in common pleas court, $551. HB 440 does not eliminate court-ordered debts, except as a barrier to record-clearing; unlike other court debt, court-ordered restitution to victims must still be paid before a case can be sealed.

Pennsylvania’s clean slate expansion comes as the clean slate model has been gaining bipartisan traction in red, blue, and purple states alike. Earlier this month, Michigan became the most recent state to enact clean slate automated record-clearing legislation—and the first to include felonies. Utah became the second state to enact a clean slate law in March 2019, and California took the step of adopting prospective automatic record-clearance legislation later that same year. States as diverse as Connecticut, Washington state, North Carolina, Louisiana, and New Jersey have introduced or passed measures that move toward automated record-clearing, with momentum building in many more for state 2021 legislative sessions. Bipartisan legislation to establish automatic record clearance for certain federal records has also been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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