Why States Are Rushing to Seal Tens of Millions of Old Criminal Records
A bipartisan movement to do so is under way across the country
As a teenager working at a Pennsylvania theme park, Keith broke the law. For selling entry tickets on the side, he was convicted of a third-degree misdemeanour. That record has dogged him since. Prospective employers shun him, he says. Keith has young children, and some schools block those with a record from being chaperones on trips or coaching a sports team. Before the internet and digitized databases, Keith could have hoped that his infraction would be forgotten once fines were paid or time served. No longer. Firms like InstantCheckMate, Truthfinder or SentryLink can dredge up records quickly. State files are easily searched online at no cost. Nine in ten employers, four in five landlords, as well as mortgage lenders, universities and schools run such checks.
A bipartisan movement is under way in states to do something about this. Last year lawmakers from both parties in Pennsylvania—nudged by an odd-bedfellows coalition of left-leaning activists, unions, chambers of commerce, Koch Industries and others—voted overwhelmingly to be the first state to do so. In June it started sealing over 30m records, and will soon be finished. That spurred others.
In March Utah’s governor signed legislation to clean old records automatically, probably 30,000 cases yearly, amid hopes of boosting the supply of local labour. California enacted an automatic clean-slate law last month. That law does nothing to wipe old records, but at least allows for future expungement, from 2021, for arrests and less serious crimes. Michigan is next on the list.
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