The STEP Academy graduate dropped by Victor Rodgers’ office.
“David,” as Rodgers called him, had a substance abuse problem after exiting 10 years of incarceration. Through HACC’s STEP Academy, he learned workplace expectations and job skills. Now, “David” informed Rodgers that he had a good job and an apartment. He regularly attended AA meetings. He was getting a car.
“These don’t seem like big steps, but think of the changes in his life,” said Rodgers. “You have someone now that’s a taxpaying member of our community, who can be counted on every day to show up to work, who’s helping a company produce and stay in business. It’s a win-win all around.”
Throughout the midstate, employers and lawmakers are sharing an epiphany. People make mistakes. Sometimes, those mistakes send youthful offenders directly to jail. They might emerge sadder but wiser, but their criminal records diminish their prospects for holding jobs, paying taxes and supporting families.
Changes are afoot. A new state “Clean Slate” law will, by midyear, automatically seal the records of those with certain second- or third-degree misdemeanors who have been free of convictions for 10 years. “Second chance” job fairs for ex-offenders, also known as re-entrants, are pairing employers desperate for workers with workers desperate for jobs. Rodgers’ STEP program for ex-offenders is on pause due to lack of funding, but he hopes for a revival.
The Clean Slate law is a first in the nation, adopted with bipartisan support in 2018. Prime sponsor state Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) co-chairs, with Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia), the legislative Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. There, lawmakers and interest groups of widely divergent views converge over the idea of giving some ex-offenders another chance.
“Everyone can understand making a dumb decision that affected them the rest of their life,” said Delozier. “If you’ve been able to keep clean for 10 years and you’re a different person, you should be given a second chance.”
State Rep. Patty Kim (D-Dauphin) became passionate about the issue when constituents looking for help finding jobs “would say quietly they have something on their records, and it was making it hard to get employed,” she said.
Legislative support rallied around employers’ workforce needs and the opioid crisis, which is driving criminal-justice encounters towards the suburbs and countryside.
“It’s waking up lawmakers that this is something we need to fight and not through rigid laws but through compassion and therapy,” Kim said.
Increasingly, employers recognized that re-entrants “are highly motivated to do well and work hard,” Kim added.
In February, 250 people at Kim’s “Second Chance Expo” connected with 10 employers and attended workshops on overcoming hurdles to employment. One man shed tears of relief at learning how to recover his driver’s license.
“The face of somebody who is struggling was invisible,” Kim said. “There was a blank space. I want us to look deeper into the people who are struggling and understand their issues in a more intimate way.”
She added, “We can pay $50,000 a year for an inmate, or we can do these Second Chance clinics.”
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia offers information to help ex-offenders navigate the new Clean Slate process. Clean slating—which closes records to the public while keeping them open for law enforcement and a handful of sensitive employment fields—came up as a solution to the cumbersome expungement process that was clogging the courts, said Litigation Director Sharon Dietrich.
“Records were a big, old road block,” said Dietrich. “Employers reject people with any blemish whatever. I once had a client fired for disorderly conduct for making a loud noise.”
Pennsylvania State Police are preparing for a June 28 launch of Clean Slate and do not yet have a count of records to be sealed, said Communications Office Director Trooper Brent Miller.
The workforce hiring crunch is driving employers to rethink the concept of not hiring based on “a small black mark” on an applicant’s record, said David Black, president and CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC.
“It’s also being driven by a sense of fairness,” he said. “People deserve a second chance. It’s a fundamental part of the criminal justice system that you do your time or pay your fines or serve on probation, and after that, you should be able to come back and contribute positively to society.”
While some fields have long embraced second chances—dock work and construction, for instance—shifting mindsets in other fields are opening up more options for ex-offenders, said Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale.
At Vantage Foods, a meat and seafood processor outside of Camp Hill, Shipping Supervisor Stephen Dixon knows that not everyone likes to work in a cold facility or do the mandatory overtime. But he is ready to provide second chances because the company gave one to him. Having served time for involuntary manslaughter, he was offered a job after one of Kim’s job fairs.
“I just want to give people a chance,” said Dixon, a Midtown Harrisburg resident. “Regardless of someone’s record, you never know somebody’s story.”
Every re-entrant looking for a second chance has different motivations, he added. His were watching the recidivism churn of prison—“I’m not about to be part of that number,” he declared—and seeing his daughter cry.
“I can’t get time back with my kids,” he said. “The only thing I can do is continue to grow.”
Since the tough-on-crime 1990s, the pendulum swung “as far as it can go,” said Black.
HACC’s Rodgers noted that Pennsylvania prisons disgorge 25,000 people a year, “and that’s 25,000 potential workers who could keep our economy going as Baby Boomers age out.”
“It’s a shame we put people away for all these years,” he said. “Now we’re in a bind. We don’t have enough people to work.”
Bloomingdale gave kudos to former state senator and Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner for leading Clean Slate efforts in the Senate by sharing his experience as owner of Penn Waste.
“Getting key Republicans and Democrats to work together was quite a show of bipartisanship,” he said.
Delozier remains “wholeheartedly” committed to being tough on crime and the “criminal heartless,” but she also believes that “there needs to be a balance.”
“A dad of three that had a drunk and disorderly when they were 22 years old deserves to be able to have a break,” she said.
Kim hopes for “more job training and resources, because re-entrants don’t know where to go or where to start.” Rodgers has hopes for reviving STEP, with its track record of 100-percent employment for graduates.
The legislative Criminal Justice Reform Caucus was slated to meet late last month to discuss next steps, said Delozier. She would like to tackle inequities in professional licensing, such as a morals clause in licensure requirements for cosmetologists that’s absent for barbers. In Pennsylvania prisons, men often are trained for barbering, while women get cosmetology training.
And while some offenses obviously preclude certain employment—the convicted embezzler shouldn’t be managing money, for instance—licensure regulations should explicitly address those crimes that correlate to licensing, she said.
While “there are bad people out there,” Clean Slate is giving many ex-offenders “another opportunity in life outside of incarceration,” said Dixon.
“It makes me feel good to help people like that,” he said. “Knowing where I came from the last eight years, and now to help somebody provide for their families, I guess I’m proud of that. It’s not something I look for to get anything back in return. I feel like I’ve been blessed, so I need to bless others.”
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia offers information to help ex-offenders navigate the new Clean Slate process. Visit www.mycleanslatepa.com.