Excerpted from a Bucks County Courier Times article by Damon C. Williams

For some Bucks County residents, their debt to society isn’t truly paid even after they serve their time or meet the other qualifications of their sentence.

Their criminal record follows them around for years, even decades. It can prevent them from getting a better-paying job, obtain better living conditions or receive certain services, and make reintegrating back into the community that much more daunting.

The Bucks County Public Defender’s Office is trying to get the word out about a new expungement program specifically designed to assist individuals in having certain criminal records expunged and others sealed.

“It’s a great idea whose time has come, and I am so happy that this is one of the outcomes of Taha. It is a win-win for everyone,” said county Solicitor Joe Khan. “It creates another pathway for folks looking to rebuild their lives, re-enter society and reinvest with the community.

The program was established last year as part of a $10 million settlement of a class action lawsuit claiming the county violated the privacy of more than 10,000 former prison inmates. A federal jury had found the county violated the state’s Criminal History Record Information Act when it posted inmate information and mugshots on a publicly accessible website.

Khan said the “potentially catastrophic lawsuit” — the jury awarded more than $60 million to plaintiffs before the settlement was reached — caused the county to take a sobering assessment of how it handled criminal records and what more could be done to help.

“In a fundamental way, what the unit does is offer free service to clients,” Khan said. “We provide all the legal expertise and legwork in having records or charges removed from a person’s records when they qualify.”

Who’s eligible for expungement?
Under certain conditions, expungements are available for non-conviction dispositions and for particular misdemeanor and felony convictions.

Additionally, to expunge an eligible record, a person will also need to pay off any related fines or costs and may need to order an official background check from the Pennsylvania State Police, which costs $22.

The process of having one’s record expunged can be a daunting, multi-year process, depending on the charge and how long ago it occurred. To even begin the process, an individual must have had no encounters with law enforcement for 10 years at the time of filing.

Still, this beats the alternative, where an individual may be denied a job, housing or other services due to a criminal record, said Lisa Williams, chief of Expungements and Pardons.

“If someone has an old theft and never thought about getting it off their record, then they wouldn’t be able to get a particular job because it will show up in a background check,” Williams said. “It is little things that people may have forgotten about, but it can lead to a possible opportunity being denied because of something that shows up from the past.”

There are also key differences between expungement, sealing and pardons. Expungement is the complete destruction of a criminal record, where sealing means that only courts, law enforcement, and a small number of employers are able to see one’s criminal record. The general public, schools, landlords and most employers do not have access to sealed records.

Last year, sealing became automatic for non-convictions such as not guilty verdicts or cases in which charges were withdrawn, dropped or dismissed after 60 days, summary convictions after 10 years and certain second- and third-degree misdemeanors.

These changes were implemented as part of the state’s Clean Slate law, which specified how criminal certain records should be handled and the manner in which they are to be expunged.

A pardon, however, is a decision made by the governor to excuse someone who has been convicted of a crime. Once the pardon is granted, the record becomes eligible for expungement.

Pardons are available for all misdemeanor and felony convictions, and individuals can apply for a pardon at any time.

The expungement program, in operation since early this year, has had only a few applicants so far. Williams said there are many contributing factors causing the relative lack of adoption.

“The biggest impediment to getting assistance is the length of time of staying out of trouble or not meeting the criteria. Not for all of them, but some of the applicants have this issue, ” Williams said. “That is the biggest obstacle we’ve had.

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