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Editorial: “Clean Slate” a good way to start 2018

Tribune-Review
| Friday, December 28, 2018 3:33 p.m.
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We have to hold people accountable.

When someone does something wrong, we need to make sure they learn a lesson. There has to be a penalty. There has to be a consequence. There has to be something that makes them realize this was wrong and there is a better way to go.

That’s why we have laws. That’s why when you break them, there is a court system to make sure that you get a ticket, that you pay a fine, that you might go to jail or serve a term of probation. That’s why we keep track so that if you do it again, next time the penalty is a little stiffer.

If we didn’t do that, no one would care about anything beyond the inconvenience of today’s fine or this 30 days in jail or the year spent on probation right now.

But that doesn’t mean we have to make it last forever.

A criminal record should absolutely be something that people consider in deciding to hire you, let you volunteer with kids or the elderly, allow to you handle money or give you a lease. But it shouldn’t be a forever punishment. If you were given a fine and a few months probation, keeping you from being gainfully employed or helping at your kids’ school for years seems like a disproportionate additional sentence.

That’s why Pennsylvania is taking steps to address it.

This week, the state puts the first part of its “Clean Slate” law into effect, allowing people to petition for certain records to be sealed. If you had a misdemeanor plea or conviction for some lower crimes, you can ask the court to truly allow your sentence to be over. In June, a second portion of the law will automatically seal records for some low-sentenced offenses if there have been no additional convictions for ten years.

In other words, if the system worked and the person was rehabilitated, Pennsylvania is acknowledging that it worked and not continuing to make them wear a scarlet letter proclaiming their past crimes.

It is the kind of thing that makes sense, and it makes sense to almost everyone.

The law was signed this year by Gov. Tom Wolf, but it wasn’t just a Democratic measure. It had Democratic and Republican authors in the House of Representatives, and passed the conservative majority Senate without a single nay.

Like the criminal justice reform bill passed in Washington this month, it is the rare opportunity when it seems everyone looks at a problem and agrees that there is a way to fix it that goes beyond which side gets a victory lap.

This new law doesn’t just hold people accountable for what they have done wrong. It holds them to account for what they have done right, and expects them to live up to that, not to live down to their past failings.

Maybe we can look at this law, and the criminal justice reform at the federal level, and expect the same level of accountability from our leaders. Maybe the Clean Slate can not just be about sealing records of crimes, but a way to say “Nothing matters but doing the right thing going forward.”

That seems like a great way to start a new year.

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