Roundtable Series: Criminal Records: From Barriers to Solutions

Sharon Dietrich, Litigation Director for Community Legal Services (CLS) Philadelphia, was the featured speaker for the September 2014 Shared Prosperity Philadelphia Roundtable, which focused on the many challenges faced by people with criminal records. This is a problem that impacts a surprisingly large number of individuals in the United States. The Department of Justice estimates that approximately 100 million Americans (or 1 in 3) have a criminal record. Sharon said that this could translate into a conservative estimate of about 400,000 Philadelphians with a criminal record. This is also a problem that effects people across the spectrum of the criminal justice system, from re-entering citizens to people who were arrested but never officially charged with a crime. CLS has seen a dramatic increase in the number of clients in CLS’s employment division requesting assistance with a criminal records problem over the past 10 years. Sharon believes that advances in technology and the relative ease with which criminal records can be accessed on-line have led to a rise in the number of background checks being performed by potential employers.

After discussing the scale of the problem of criminal records, Sharon touched on its collateral consequences, which refer to the negative impact on future economic prospects, including employment, subsidized housing, eligibility for certain types of student loans, and the problem of criminal debt. Sharon then discussed the legal framework for record clearing (expungements) and employment rights for people with criminal records in Pennsylvania, as well as Philadelphia’s “Ban the Box” ordinance. Her talk concluded with a description of some of the innovative programs that are making a difference, such as the work of RISE (the Mayor’s Office of Re-Integration Services), and the City’s recent decision to decriminalize small quantities (fewer than 30 grams) of marijuana.  She also offered suggestions to address some of the common problems facing people with criminal records, and played a trailer  from a film produced by University of Pennsylvania law school students on the problem of criminal debt. The entire film can be found at the following link.

Throughout Sharon Dietrich’s presentation, the audience was highly engaged, asking insightful questions and contributing substantive information to the discussion. After the presentation, the attendees discussed two key questions at their individual roundtables: (1) what local solutions / policy changes could be employed to alleviate or eradicate the problems that people with criminal records face? (2) Of these solutions, which are most achievable? How can our community best support these policy changes? Notes collected from the roundtable discussions, as well as a copy of Sharon’s Power Point presentation, are available for download.

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