Right now, there is a huge amount of momentum behind efforts to reexamine the role of the criminal legal system in our everyday lives. Policies like record clearance are gaining steam, and in doing so, are opening new paths forward for millions of people currently living with a criminal record. Organizers working on record clearance are focusing on making change at the state level, where state legislatures wield enormous power shaping the boundaries of the criminal legal system.
At the 2021 Summit, attendees had a chance to hear more about these efforts from the people directly involved. From Pennsylvania to Utah, the push to fundamentally reshape the criminal legal system shows us how movements are interconnected—and how change is only possible when organizers, elected officials, and technologists work together.
Panelists talked about finding common ground and building consensus, the challenges associated with criminal legal reform, and just how far we’ve come in the past few years.
The panel was moderated by Alia Toran-Burrell, Associate Program Director of Clear My Record at Code for America, and included Rep. Jordan A. Harris, Democratic Whip and State Representative of the 186th Legislative District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; and Sheena Meade, Managing Director of the Clean Slate Initiative.
Alia Toran-Burrell: Hi, everyone. Thank you for being here. Our nation is facing a reckoning and a generational transition on systemic racism and the role of the criminal legal system. We are rethinking policing, charging, sentencing, cash bail, and record clearance to name a few parts of the system. We are starting to see change and momentum on the government level. With record clearance, for instance, states across the country like Michigan and Utah, Louisiana, and Connecticut have passed or are working to pass automatic record clearance policies and have worked closely with the Clean Slate Initiative which aims to advance these policies across the country. Fortunately, Code for America is playing a large role in helping to make Clean Slate policies possible.
Today we’re going to be exploring some of these issues through a panel that focuses on how states and their governments are leading the way on fundamentally changing the criminal legal system. I want to start with you Sheena. Can you explain to our audience what the Clean Slate Initiative is, what a Clean Slate policy is, and give some examples of momentum for Clean Slate reforms across the country?
Sheena Meade: Yes. Thanks, Alia. The Clean Slate Initiative is a national organization that works with law enforcement, attorneys, business, advocates and impact people themselves to pass policies that automatically clear criminal records for people that have served their time and paid their debts. These policies ensure that people who’ve got a record can overcome their past mistakes, and get a fair shot at a better future.
Some of the policies, what it looks like is expanding the eligibility, and also automatically clearing convictions, non-convictions, and the crimes that are covered under the policy. You just spoke about some of the momentum, we are seeing great momentum across the country. Most recently, Michigan just implemented Clean Slate policy. We have Utah going to effect this summer, that Code America has been a great partner working with us and at Pennsylvania, which is best for a Representative Harris who actually worked on that legislation, he’s a champion for it to talk about that. My hometown, Pennsylvania, was the first to pass Clean Slate policies that has cleared over 30 million records.
Alia: Yes, Representative Harris. I want to allow you to talk about the amazing work that you and your state have done.
Rep. Jordan A. Harris: First of all, thank you so much for having me. Glad to be here and glad to see the work of Clean Slate happening nationally, and us having this dialogue. In Pennsylvania in 2018, we press the nation’s first Clean Slate Act. It was myself and Representative Sheryl Delozier, who is a Republican legislator from Cumberland County, which is a rural part of our state, I a Democratic legislator, from Philadelphia County which is our urban epicenter. We worked together and across the aisle to find common ground and build consensus on the fact that we needed to have a process by which people’s record would get sealed.
What we saw is that the record sealing that we had in place, most people weren’t taking advantage of it, and the best way to do it would be to do it automatically, after a certain period of time and after people have paid their debt to society. Since inception, we passed it in ’18. It took effect in ’19. Since inception, Pennsylvania has sealed more than 36 million records affecting more than 1.1 million people. As you’ve said, since then other states have followed suit, but we’re not done.
There’s so much more that needs to be done with regards to record sealing, understanding that Pennsylvania only went but so far. In this term, we’re actually looking to do more and include in the Clean Slate in Pennsylvania, we’re looking to do nonviolent felonies, and try to really give folks the clean slate that they deserve.
Alia: That’s so exciting. As we talked about in the beginning, and that as you are mentioning right now, there’s more to be done. In a world where, let’s say all 50 states approved and implemented effective Clean Slate policies, what else needs to be done to achieve systemic change within our legal system? What are examples of places where governments and communities are really paving the way on these issues?
Rep. Harris: Yes. When you ask a question of what’s next, first, we need to really expand Clean Slate so that it is effective in all 50 states. We need to look at what we can do on a federal level to do that for federal charges as well. That’s the first thing, and it has to be comprehensive. In Pennsylvania, we did misdemeanor twos and threes, which are some of our lower misdemeanors. We need to get that all the way and at least tackle nonviolent felonies. That’s the first step.
The second step with regards to criminal justice in general, in Pennsylvania, we’ve been looking at something called participatory defense. That’s looking at making sure that folks understand that the court system when they are defending themselves so that they and their family can take part in the process. We’re looking at what we call participatory defense that was started by our defender, the Defenders Association of Philadelphia.
Also, one of the things that I’m saying is, honestly, we need to get beyond talking about reforming the criminal justice system and start talking about reimagining the criminal justice system. Think about it this way, you have a police officer to arrest you, you have a district attorney to prosecute you, you have the Department of Corrections to house you after the judge has sentenced you. Sometimes when you get out, you have a probation or parole officer to monitor you, but where is the state level or the federal level agency that ensures that you reconnect with your community? Where is that government agency that is responsible for making sure that we’re lowering our recidivism rate?
We have to reimagine what the criminal justice system should look like so that we’re not just calling people criminals, but we’re also doing the work to make sure that they get to integrate back into society. When we start doing that, then we’ll see recidivism rates drop, we’ll see us having the ability to reinvest those dollars into things that don’t incarcerate people, but actually give them the fresh start they deserve.
Alia: Thank you so much for that. I love the idea of reimagining, of reimagining what this system can be and how it can serve and interact with folks. Last year, we saw George Floyd murdered by police in Minnesota, which sparked a movement for social justice, like we haven’t seen for more than a generation. Yet Recently, there have been more police killings. Adam Toledo, 13 years old in Chicago, Dante Wright in Minnesota, and Ma’Khia Bryant, most recently in Ohio. How can government work to stop these ongoing injustices and repair the harm? Where do we go from here?
Sheena: Thanks, Alia. Where do we go from here? You mentioned all the killings, that just happened and George Floyd but just like recently, just other– As we were starting to breathe or sigh, like getting ourselves together with the verdict of the police officer in Minnesota. That same day, a six-year-old girl was murdered by the police. Where do we go from here? I’m trying to figure that out.
There’s a lot of trauma among my community, among black people, among leaders in this space, and who is working every day to dismantle the system that has kept us oppressed, but where do we go from here? I’m really trying to figure that out. I was just recently sitting with my son, I have four black sons, who are all over the age of 18, in college, who are black men, and well, one who is 13, excuse me, and a daughter who’s 17, so I have five children.
Just to let you know, I was sitting with them, with my son the other day, who will be 20 next month, and I said, “You’re a young adult now. When you go out, you don’t have to ask me to go out, but you need to inform me because you’re a young black man.” I turned to my husband and say, “You need to tell Nathan what he should do if the police officer–” and I stopped. I realized there’s nothing you could tell my son to do, that will keep him from being killed or shot or brutalized in the streets.
It has gotten to that point that it’s no longer like, put your flashers on, put your hands on it, is nothing so I don’t know. I know that we have to continue to advocate, we have to continue making noise. We have to continue holding people accountable. We got to change the policymakers. We got to put the right people in office, we got to elect the right sheriffs, police chiefs. We as leaders and activists have to make sure that we’re informing our community and bringing their voices to the table and have these conversations in these spaces like this.
Alia, thanks for that question, but I’m still trying to figure that out because every time I feel I figured it out, boom-boom, I’m getting hit with something else that just happened.
Alia: Yes, thank you so much for that honesty. Representative Harris. I want to pass it to you, for your thoughts as well.
Rep. Harris: I can’t say I have the full answer, but I have some suggestions, but it doesn’t start with legislation. We have to be honest and have real conversations. The first thing that we have to do is see the humanity in Black people. You can put any law in place that you want. You can put any training that you want, but until people look at a Black person and see the same humanity in them that they see in anybody else, until you look at marginalized group and see the same humanity that you see in the majority, none of this will matter.
Because the truth is when folks engage in these conflicts, there’s something that makes you look at a Black boy that’s 15 and thinks he’s more dangerous than his white counterpart. There’s something that makes you look at a 16 year old Black girl and think that she’s more dangerous than her 16 year old white counterpart.
We have to do the internal work first to look at ourselves and ask ourselves why can’t we see the humanity in Black boys? When did Black boys go from toddler to adulthood? When did we miss the moment for Black boys and Black girls to be children? That’s the first thing, is we have to talk about viewing and seeing the humanity in Black people.
Then we have to talk about police training. Because what we saw in Columbus was a lack of training. You saw a police officer come to the scene and the response was to put four bullets in the chest of a 16 year old. That’s about training. We have to look at training. There’s an old additive that says, ‘when the carpenters only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.
When we talk about what needs to happen, we have to train differently. What about rubber bullets? What about tasers? What about de-escalation tactics? What about social workers and other mental health professionals who could be a part of the process? Then we need to make sure that when we actually change how we train and educate our police officers, we also have to talk about how do we hold people accountable when they go astray of doing what they’re trained to do.
Right now, a big part of the problem is that the actions that we’re seeing are trained actions. We have to train differently, we have to provide different tools, we have to provide different personnel that can actually address the issues when people are in crisis.
When you call 911, it’s not always that somebody is- their life is on the mind and that you need the gun. Sometimes you need the glove and that’s what we have to understand when we’re dealing with police and policing in our country. A lot of work needs to be done, but I think we all deserve it because when I walk out of my house and I don’t have on my suit and my tie, I’m just another Black guy living in the city of Philadelphia and the same exact thing could happen to me. That’s why we need to really reform what we’re doing, because when we aren’t safe, none of us are safe.
Alia: Thank you so much for that. You speak to what can we do, what needs to happen. Some of those are directed towards policy makers, folks in government. What about the people who are watching today? Can you leave our audience with some final thoughts and motivation? What do you need them to do to create the change that the both of you are talking about? Sheena I’ll point it to you first.
Sheena: I’m just going to piggyback off of Representative Harris. I know we’re at time, but, we have to first start having those conversations and seeing humanity in people, especially people who are directly impacted by the system. Realize when there’s 70 to a hundred million people who have a criminal record, one in three Americans, right here on this call, there’s one person that’s me. That means they’re in your church and your community, they’re in your legislature, they’re all around you. See the humanity in them, believe it, give that grace that second chance and just realize this is your neighbor.
Seeing that humanity and people, when you thinking about these laws that are being pushed forward and also the barriers that are keeping our community behind. I want people to think a little bit hard on that.
Alia: Thank you. Representative Harris?
Rep. Harris: For me to wrap it up, what we got to keep pushing as the average person is, we got to demand better and hold people accountable for better. Let’s be clear, the Chauvin verdict didn’t come because it was the nice thing to do. It came because brothers and sisters, all across this country took to the streets. They marched, they protest, there was civil unrest. That’s what must continue, we got to continue in the streets, in the legislatures, in the boardrooms until justice touches all of us.
Alia: Thank you so much for those closing words. Thank you just generally to our panelists for joining us here today, we so appreciate your thoughts and perspectives and actions. I want to reiterate your final thoughts, which are public advocacy has the power to make change. Make your voice heard, organize around the change that we want and need to see. Together we really can make an enormous difference in driving the system change that we so badly need. Thank you all.
Sheena: Thank you.
Rep. Harris: Thank you.