By Tom Wolf
While dozens of states across the country have moved forward with bipartisan-supported criminal justice reforms, Pennsylvania holds a unique place in this effort as the birthplace of the movement. In 1787, many of the same individuals who signed the Declaration of Independence and later drafted the U.S. Constitution founded the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons — which later became the Pennsylvania Prison Society, devoted to a humane, just and restorative correctional system.
More than two centuries later, we should consider how the Founding Fathers would gauge our progress toward these goals. As of 2014, 2.7 million Pennsylvanians have a criminal record, which can carry a lifetime of consequences. Nine in 10 employers and four in five landlords use criminal record background checks, putting ex-offenders at a distinct disadvantage when trying to get a job, find housing and improve their education. Men who have been incarcerated take home, on average, 40 percent less pay annually than those who never served time. This reduced earning potential has ripple effects beyond individual households. Because ex-offenders earn less, the national economy could lose an estimated $65 billion a year in lost gross domestic product.
That’s why I signed Act 5 of 2016 into law, which will remove barriers to employment for many of these individuals. The new law provides for the sealing — or expungement — of minor criminal records for those who have been crime-free for 10 years. This “second chance” legislation is a good first step toward breaking the cycle of failure that forces many ex-offenders into a lifetime of poverty, unemployment, and recidivism.
And we’re getting national attention with an effort to make this opportunity more accessible. Republicans and Democrats in both chambers of the General Assembly are pushing legislation that would make Pennsylvania the first state in the nation to automatically seal records for minor criminal offenses. It’s commonsense legislation with overwhelming support from the left, right, and independents in public polling.
This year, my administration and leaders from both political parties and all three branches of government launched an extensive review of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system through a new Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). With the assistance of the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the JRI work group analyzes state and local criminal justice data and applies best practices tailored toward challenges specific to Pennsylvania. Since the first initiative in 2012, Pennsylvania has had a steady decline in the prison population. Nonetheless, our state still has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast. The JRI effort aims to reduce ineffective corrections spending and invest those savings in proven public safety strategies. We are optimistic that legislators from both sides of the aisle working together will allow Pennsylvania to continue to reduce recidivism rates and save taxpayer resources.
At the heart of this progress is a bipartisan recognition that the way we approached criminal justice for decades — focusing on tough rhetoric and long sentences — failed to make communities safer and has cost us a fortune. We are joined in our second JRI effort by Republicans like Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who has been a leading voice on changing our approach to criminal justice for decades. Our Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel was first appointed to the job by my predecessor, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, and I reappointed him because his commitment to improving our justice system is unparalleled and has earned deep respect from leaders on both sides of the aisle.
Together, we are working to implement smart reforms that reduce sentences for non-violent offenders and ensure those who leave our prisons become productive members of society. We approach these reforms with the founding principle that improving outcomes for re-entrants makes our communities safer in the long run.
As we continue our work on justice reform, we are ever mindful of the deep legacy we must uphold. Hundreds of years ago, the Founding Fathers recognized the need for a more humane and effective justice system in Pennsylvania, and our work to transform our criminal justice system with a focus on fairness, rehabilitation and true public safety is aimed at fulfilling that promise once again.
Tom Wolf is the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Times.