Attorneys with Student Legal Services at Penn State handle about 1,500 cases a year, about 60 percent of those criminal cases.
Director Kelly Mroz said there is immediate concern from most of those about the impact a criminal charge could have on future educational opportunities, such as law or medical school, as well as employment prospects after graduation.
“It’s a huge issue for us here because we’re working with students and they’re in job-search mode,” Mroz said. “They’re searching for internships and permanent employment.”
Most of the cases handled by the office involve summary offenses, such as disorderly conduct, and lower level misdemeanors, like marijuana possession charges. They do not take felony cases, Mroz said.
Programs like accelerated rehabilitative disposition provide an opportunity for record expungement for most first time misdemeanor offenses, and summary offenders can petition the courts to expunge a charge after five years, provided they haven’t done anything else, Mroz said. The options are much more limited for those that have been convicted of even lesser misdemeanor charges.
Under current statutes, a person can only be granted expungement for felonies and misdemeanors once they reach 70 years of age and have not been arrested for at least 10 years, or if they seek a gubernatorial pardon. A friend or relative can ask the courts for expungement on behalf of a person that has been dead for at least three years.
A new bill could change that for people convicted of low level misdemeanors, provided they’ve kept their noses clean for periods of time after they’ve finished their punishment.
Senate Bill 166 has drawn bipartisan support. Its primary sponsor is Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery/Bucks.
Greenleaf’s proposal, approved unanimously by the Senate in February, would allow an offender to petition the court to consider expunging records of second degree misdemeanors if they haven’t been charged again in 10 years. For second degree and ungraded misdemeanors, petitions can be filed after seven years.
The bill was sent to the state House of Representatives and was amended to include portions of a similar piece of legislation introduced in that chamber last month by Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia. Harris’ bill would allow the court to grant requests limiting disclosure of criminal histories after 10 years without an arrest to anyone but criminal justice agencies, state licensing agencies or child protective service agencies.
That’s not to say all prior offenders would get the chance to have access to their history limited. Exceptions are written into the bill stating that the courts should not grant petitions of people sentenced to more than two years in prison or convicted of four or more offenses punishable by a year in prison.
Offenders convicted of more serious violent misdemeanors, like simple assault, or witness and victim retaliation and intimidation, and some others are also prohibited from having their records limited.
Both Greenleaf and Harris hope to help people clear obstacles to employment and educational opportunities in their memorandums to colleagues when they introduced each piece of legislation.
The bill currently needs a third and final vote from the House before it can be sent back to the Senate for approval. If passed there, it would head to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk. The bill would take effect 180 days after becoming law.
If passed, the bill wouldn’t immediately affect most of the work done at her office because of the 10-year time frame and they only assist current students, Mroz said, but would have an impact on their clients much sooner than the current law allows.
“It would be good to tell them ‘there’s something they can do 10 years out,’ instead of ‘this will be with you the rest of your life,’” Mroz said.