A Green Light to a Second Chance: Uber, Lawmakers Work to Help Individuals with Criminal Records Earn Gainful Employment
Fall 2017 Catalyst
November 21, 2017
Pennsylvania has a business problem. Tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians with a criminal conviction are being prevented from access to housing, education and, most importantly, work opportunities. And the cost is enormous. According to 2015 statistics from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, connecting just 100 formerly convicted Pennsylvanians with jobs produces $55 million in earnings and yields $1.9 million in wage tax contributions over their lifetimes.
Which begs the question — what would it look like for Pennsylvania’s economy if thousands of people were suddenly given greater access to work and education? A bipartisan contingent of state lawmakers and PA Chamber Member Company Uber are helping to answer that question in equally important ways.
First, a team of legislators are championing landmark legislation through the General Assembly that would offer a “Clean Slate” to individuals with minor offenses on their criminal record.
“This is an opportunity to put Pennsylvania first when it comes to economic opportunity and job creation for its citizens,” said Senator Scott Wagner, R-York, who sponsored S.B. 529 in the state Senate along with Senator Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia. The bill passed the Senate with unanimous support this summer and awaits further action in the House. Similar legislation, House Bill 1419, has also been introduced by Representatives Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, and Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia.
If signed into law, S.B. 529 would be the first of its kind in the nation. It would allow for the automatic sealing of low-level, non-violent criminal offenses, eliminating the need for individuals to petition the court. The “Clean Slate” bill aims to build off of the good work of Act 5 of 2016, which allowed individuals previously convicted of minor offenses who have been free from any arrest or prosecution for at least 10 years to petition the courts to limit the disclosure of their records.
Senate Bill 529 would automatically seal (non-violent) misdemeanors after 10 years of the individual being crime-free, and as long as court obligations have been met. Offenses that do not qualify include: offenses involving danger to the person, offenses against the family, offenses relating to firearms and other dangerous articles; offenses relating to registration of sexual offenders; a violation relating to indecent exposure; a violation relating to failure to comply with registration requirements; a violation relating to weapons or implements for escape; a violation relating to cruelty to animals or a violation relating to corruption of minors.
According to the bill, non-convictions would be sealed after 60 days, and only after court obligations have been fulfilled. It also exempts individuals with a sealed record from having to disclose criminal history records on various applications. The latter, according to Wagner, is the biggest hurdle for individuals seeking employment and housing opportunities.
“The people we are trying to help have demonstrated over a reasonable period of time that they have changed their ways and want to become productive members of society,” Wagner said.
Senator Wagner owns and operates two businesses — PennWaste and KBS Trucking — both out of York County. From a private sector perspective, he sees this bill as a commonsense approach to a statewide problem.
“According to the U.S. Department of Justice, over one-third of our state’s working age citizens have some sort of criminal record, most of which are minor offenses or arrests without convictions. Having that blemish on your background check can usually stop a job prospect dead in its tracks,” Wagner explained.
“We want to allow those who have paid their debts to society a chance to start fresh and have the opportunity to become productive members of society. The alternative for these individuals comes with a major social and financial cost to their families and taxpayers. I see it as a win-win for Pennsylvania,” he added.
Uber also knows firsthand the negative impact that criminal records have on job seekers’ career prospects. Back in 2009, the company introduced a revolutionary work model wherein anyone who meets the background check, driver safety and insurance qualifications can be an Uber driver and work wherever and whenever he or she wants. The result has been access to flexible work for tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians and reliable, affordable transportation for millions of their neighbors.
According to Uber Senior Manager for Public Affairs Shari Shapiro, “The larger lesson of our experience is that people are hungry for the opportunity to work towards their goals — to put food on the table, to pay for school, to go on vacation, even to pay for medical expenses. The benefits are felt by the individual, of course, but all Pennsylvanians benefit through greater productivity, higher tax revenues and reduced burdens on the social safety net.”
Shapiro also recognizes that it can be extraordinarily difficult for people to achieve these goals when they have a criminal history. Criminal records are dispersed through many different jurisdictions — city, county, state and federal — and can often lack up-to-date information, like whether a person was convicted or exonerated for a crime. For example, according to the FBI, half of the records in its system lack final disposition information for cases. Such inaccuracies can inappropriately bar people from access to vital life and career opportunities. Even where people have the right to repair their criminal histories, it can be difficult and costly to do so, and as the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia put it, Pennsylvanians therefore “do not know of or cannot utilize” their options.
It’s for these reasons that Uber isn’t only taking the steps to provide opportunities for Pennsylvanians with criminal histories to live full and productive lives, but why they also ardently support the Clean Slate bill. The legislation would allow these people to apply for positions at Uber and any other company they choose without the fear that their prior mistakes would take them out of the running for the position.
“The Clean Slate bill addresses the two factors that Uber’s experience has highlighted as particularly important to societal benefits — increasing opportunity for work and reducing administrative barriers to clearing background checks — without impacting safety,” Shapiro adds.
Uber also recognizes the barriers that many people meet under the current system where misdemeanor records need to be sealed — they either aren’t aware of the rule at all or the steps they need to take to make it happen. In addition, existing law takes time and resources away from the court system that could otherwise be spent addressing civil and criminal matters. As Shapiro points out, the Clean Slate bill mitigates this problem with no negative impact on safety. This has earned it support by both the Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police and the state’s District Attorneys’ Association.
“In addition to supporting Clean Slate legislation, Uber has taken other steps to encourage greater opportunities for people that have paid their debt to society,” Shapiro says. “We’ve always ‘banned the box’ for our corporate job applicants. We strive to have a background check process for drivers that is thorough, fair and relevant to the work at hand. That’s why we’ve always used court records, even checking them physically in person if needed, to ensure they’re based on the most accurate information available about whether a person was found guilty or exonerated for a crime, as opposed to other methods that rely on arrest records that don’t always include final dispositions.”
In a world that’s become increasingly politically partisan, it’s good to see that lawmakers can reach across the aisle to work on an issue that will help to boost prospects for non-violent offenders and help close a workforce development issue that impacts the entire Commonwealth. And by opening opportunities to those who have paid their debt to society and are just looking to get back on their feet, Uber isn’t only giving them the green light to a second chance — they’re making the right business decision for Pennsylvania.
This article was crafted with input from Shari Shapiro, senior manager of public affairs for Uber; and Jon Hopcraft, chief of staff to Senator Scott Wagner.