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Sharon Dietrich ’82 doesn’t remember the details about Client X, who she met as a young attorney in Philadelphia in the late 1980s. What she remembers clearly is what he said to her while speaking to low-income residents about their rights at work.

“A guy came up to me and said, ‘I got fired because I had a criminal record. Is there anything that can be done about that?’ “ Dietrich says. “I distinctly remember thinking, ‘That’s really interesting. I bet this happens to a lot of people.’ ”

Her career at Community Legal Services, which serves low-income clients in Philadelphia, showed her how right she was. In 2016, the employment law unit she runs there saw 1,500 new clients. Two-thirds of them sought help because criminal records were preventing them from getting jobs.

It’s not clear how many people have federal, state and local criminal records; experts’ estimates range from 70 million to 100 Americans. That means one in four, or one in three. A common estimate is that 30 percent of Pennsylvania residents have some sort of record.

“This is a mainstream issue at this point,” Dietrich says.

She points to several factors that make it harder for people to put their records behind them than it was at the beginning of her career. These include digitization and Internet access to these pieces of one’s past, the tough-on-crime movement in the 1990s that landed millions in jail, and post- 9/11 laws that prohibited people with criminal pasts from getting certain jobs. One client said it was more difficult for him to land a job in the 21st century than it was after he was released from prison in the 1970s.

Lindsay Phillips, Psy.D. ’00 teaches psychology at Albright and studies the barriers people face when they’re released from prison. She credits author Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, with opening the public’s eyes to the effects of incarcerating more than 2 million Americans. This attention has led to initiatives like “ban the box” laws that prohibit questions about past crimes on job applications.

People with records face numerous obstacles to a normal life. Sometimes they’re barred from public housing or from living in certain neighborhoods, along with the problems with finding a job. This instability makes it harder for people to contribute to society after being freed—and more likely they’ll commit another crime.

“It’s a barrier that can really spiral, if you can’t gain employment, you can’t pay child support, you can’t get clothing for work,” Phillips says. “Helping this population doesn’t just help them. It helps the whole community.”

Dietrich describes her typical client as someone who has “gotten into trouble once or twice, and it was decades ago.” Some were imprisoned for selling or possessing drugs, for driving while intoxicated, or for getting into a fight. Some were arrested,  but never convicted. One woman, she says, lost her job because of a conviction for disorderly conduct—making a loud noise.

“Who hasn’t made a loud noise?” Dietrich asks.

Besides representing individual clients, she advocates for laws that would make it easier for people to put their criminal records behind them. One success was a law that took effect in November, allowing some people convicted of certain misdemeanors—like prostitution and drug possession—to have their records sealed to the public. Those in law enforcement can still see sealed records, but they’re not accessible to employers. And clients can apply for jobs without disclosing past mistakes.

Community Legal Services staff actually drafted the latest bill Dietrich is pushing for—a measure often referred to as the Clean Slate Act.

While those with records have a new ability to have their records sealed, this process requires plenty of paperwork, attorneys’ fees, and months to wait for the legal system. The Clean Slate Act, on the other hand, would automatically seal eligible criminal records after 10 years. That would save clients time and money they usually don’t have to spare.

The law was introduced in the state Senate in 2016 but didn’t progress through the legislature. Still, it has bipartisan support—Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf supported it, as did Republican state Sen. Scott Wagner, who is challenging him for re-election.

It is expected to be reintroduced in the state legislature soon. And if it gains the governor’s signature it will be the first measure like it in the United States, a distinction that has garnered attention from news outlets including The Atlantic and The American Prospect.

For Dietrich, this bill is another way of lifting up solutions for those who, besides the troubles of the past, are just regular people.

“The people that come to us aren’t what you think of as criminals,” she says. “They’re not extraordinary people. They’re just like anyone else.”

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