Following decades of failed tough-on-crime policies in the United States, between 70 million and 100 million Americans now have some type of criminal record, standing in the way of basics like jobs and housing for a huge swath of the nation’s citizens. But a policy that’s been gaining bipartisan steam in the states over the past five years, known as “Clean Slate,” has started to chip away at that gargantuan figure, by enabling people to have eligible records automatically wiped after they remain crime-free. In a special episode of Off-Kilter recorded at the Clean Slate Initiative’s first annual convening in Detroit, Rebecca sat down with several of the leaders in the Clean Slate movement to talk recent wins in the states, how people’s lives are being changed for the better, and the road ahead for criminal record-clearing with tough-on-crime rhetoric on the rise.
This episode’s guests: Sheena Meade, managing director of the Clean Slate Initiative; Sharon Dietrich, litigation director at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia; Noella Sudbury, executive director of Clean Slate Utah; Josh Hoe, policy analyst at Safe and Just Michigan; and Zaki Smith, one of the leaders of the Clean Slate New York campaign.
[bright theme music]
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas. Following decades of failed tough-on-crime policies in the U.S., between 70 million and 100 million Americans now have some type of criminal record standing in the way of basics like jobs and housing for a huge swath of the nation’s citizens. But a policy that’s been gaining bipartisan steam in the states over the past five years known as Clean Slate has started to chip away at that gargantuan figure by enabling people to have eligible records automatically wiped after they remain crime free.
I had the honor of getting to spend an amazing couple of days with some of my dearest friends who are among the powerhouse leaders behind the Clean Slate movement this week at the Clean Slate Initiative’s first annual convening in Detroit, which felt like more of a reunion than a conference in the best way. And I sat down with a few of them for a special episode of Off Kilter. Let’s go first to my conversation with Sheena Meade, the Clean Slate Initiative’s managing director. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
Sheena, I have to say, it’s amazing to actually be sharing space with you in person!
SHEENA MEADE: Yes, yes!
VALLAS: Congratulations on this amazing, amazing convening, CSI’s first annual convening. Since I’m getting to steal you for just a few minutes, and then I got to let you go back to conference stuff, I wanted to ask. This has been just such an incredible year and a really busy year for the Clean Slate movement and for the Clean Slate Initiative in particular. Talk a little bit about what’s been going on since the last time you came on the show.
MEADE: Yes, Rebecca, thank you. It’s great to catch up. And this is like a really full circle, very celebratory moment, and just really full circle. So, as of yesterday was my second year being executive director of the Clean Slate Initiative. And to be able to start off my second-year anniversary with over 160 advocates and state partners around the country coming together to talk about Clean Slate and what the future looks like has been so rewarding, has been so emotional. Just to see the people come together, to know that they’re not alone, that this movement is bigger than us or bigger than them in their own states, and that it is a movement. It is people fighting all across the country who wants to get to automation and full Clean Slate. And it’s been rewarding.
And what has been happening, I think if the folks out there was able to be able to look across the room, they would be able to see what has been happening. There are people from across the country. There’s been momentum that has been happening. There has been states that has said, that have came to us to say, “How can we do Clean Slate, too?” And this was the perfect moment to bring people together. You know, we’re still trying to navigate a pandemic, but people just, it was just worth their while to try to get here healthy, to come see beautiful faces, face to face, hugging people, loving people, and do peer-to-peer sharing. And since the last time I talked to you, more states have passed, has been following suit of Pennsylvania. And in the last few years, we’ve passed six more states, I think seven states now. I literally, during the Second Chance Month, I think it was like two or three states there. I was not updating my numbers in time. And so, it’s been exciting and—
VALLAS: It’s always a good sign when the states are passing the law faster than you’re able to keep count.
MEADE: Yeah, keeping up. I’m like, did something just pass? And it’s been beautiful. And the thing is, it’s continuing to be a bipartisan effort: red, blue, purple states, everyone getting engaged. And so, a lot has been happening. We’ve been seeing that there’s opportunities to go further. You know, this is, it takes multiple years. We had some learnings. As you know the first year, we was in a pandemic. We had to do a lot of amendments to how we would do stuff. So much has happened. We have a lot of our uprise against racial terror. It’s been a lot of political divisiveness. But in all, the Clean Slate movement has been able to withstand it all. It has been a place that where people can come together. It’s been a place where people can heal, people will build partnerships. And we’ve been able to pass Clean Slate laws and continue to build momentum. And so, it’s been really exciting.
And since that, I’ve been able to really advocate on a federal Clean Slate and actually meet with lawmakers since the Capitol’s opening back up. And I’ve been from Congressional Black Caucus to all the way to CPAC. And the message has been the same. It’s people over politics, and people deserve a chance at redemption. And it resonates. And no matter who I talk to, there has not been one person who says this is not common-sense policies. So, it’s been really exciting to see. Learnings, of course, there’s always gonna be bumps and hiccups, but that’s a part of the journey, and it makes us better. So, it makes every time we go to the next state, the policies are better and really getting to centering directly impacted people, bringing them at the center of the work at the table. There’s just so, it’s just so exciting to see everything that’s been happening. I mean, the support from celebrities and brands and corporations like Wal-Mart, JP Morgan. Companies are reaching out. We’ve been able to really spread the word and just know that there is, there’s soldiers out there that I don’t even know that’s advocating. And so, I think for Clean Slate initiative as the entity that brings all the beautiful puzzle pieces together.
There’s so many people who have been doing this work way beyond me. I mean, tonight we’re gonna be able to honor you, Rebecca, and the work that you have started here and the trust in people to take on your baby and to grow. And so, this baby’s walking and gaveling and moving and jumping and is getting to teenage years, you know. And so, just to be able to have even you, Sharon Dietrich having, Noella, the people who all dipping and dabbing and trying to pull this thing together at the front end in their own respective states, but also, trying to impact nationally, for them to see these folks come together is so meaningful to me in knowing that the movement is in good hands with all the Clean Slate partners across the country. It’s just full circle. It’s exciting.
VALLAS: Well, it’s been incredibly exciting to get to watch. And you know I’m your #1 cheerleader and fan. So, it’s an honor to get to be in this work with you, to get to be with you in-person, which is just truly electric right now. And I’m excited for the rest of this conference. But I can’t think of a better way to start off this episode than by sitting down with you. And now we’ll be hearing from some of the folks you just named talking about what’s going on in their states like Pennsylvania and Utah and Michigan and beyond. Thank you, Sheena, for everything you are doing to fearlessly lead this incredible movement.
MEADE: Thank you, Rebecca.
VALLAS: And I am so excited to see where it goes in the next couple of years.
MEADE: Yes. Aight, listen. The next couple of years, I’m hoping that we’re saying that we’ve got into most of 50, all 50 states. And now we could be laying on a beach in Hawaii, enjoying them, bringing record expungement to their state.
VALLAS: You know I’ve been pushing for Clean Slate Hawaii for a while. So, I’m there if you wanna start that campaign.
MEADE: Listen, everyone on the team wants to be that person that’s overseeing. I mean, we have people in operation saying, “I think, to be fair, we will take it.” So, I think maybe ED privileges, I’ll take that state. But I think maybe the next conference needs to be in Hawaii. It makes sense.
VALLAS: I’m available. Sheena, it’s a pleasure to be with you.
MEADE: Thank you so much. [upbeat music break]
VALLAS: Welcome back to Off-Kilter. I’m Rebecca Vallas. After getting to catch up with Sheena Meade, I sat down with some of the leaders behind the first states to take up Clean Slate. Sharon Dietrich, litigation director at Community Legal Services in Philly, and my co-conspirator in developing the Clean Slate model years ago. Noella Sudbury is executive director of Clean Slate Utah, and one of the leaders behind Utah’s Clean Slate law, the second to become law in the U.S. Josh Ho is policy analyst at Safe and Just Michigan. He’s also one of the leaders behind Michigan’s Clean Slate law, which was the third to become law in the nation. And Zaki Smith is one of the leaders behind the Clean Slate New York campaign, which has been working to bring Clean Slate to the Empire State for the past three years. We talk about the past, current, and future of Clean Slate in the states and how to continue this work even as the national narrative on criminal justice reform takes a real turn towards tough on crime.
Zaki, Noella, Josh, Sharon, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. And I have to say, it’s kind of amazing and also a little unreal to actually be in person with you guys sharing some space.
JOSH HO: Absolutely.
ZAKI SMITH: Yeah. This is super dope. You have no idea of, yeah, just what’s happening in my heart, really. You know what I mean? To just see a thing from a distance on paper, hear about Pennsylvania, hear about the states, and then now, sit in this space with the people who are responsible, who have been influential in making what I’m trying to pursue happen, so.
VALLAS: Well, and it’s a lot more folks than who are sitting here behind all those amazing victories.
VALLAS: But it is pretty cool to have all of you guys sitting in the same spot and to be doing this in person. So, Zaki, I’m gonna start with you because we only have you for a little bit before you need to get up and do some things to do with the documentary that you’re making!
SMITH: Right, right. Absolutely.
VALLAS: But you’ve been on the show before. You’ve talked about your own personal story on this show before, and you’ve talked about collateral consequences, as they’re often called, and how that comes with having a criminal record in the United States, not anywhere, right, but in this country in particular.
SMITH: Mmhmm, mmhmm.
VALLAS: What brings you to this conference? There’s a ton of excitement and momentum going on. Folks across the country coming together to talk about the need for second chances and specifically for automatic record clearance. You talk a lot about perpetual punishment in your work. What brings you to this conference?
SMITH: Well, exactly what you said, right? What brings me here is, well, one, of course, I’m on a panel to talk about how to get folks involved in things of that nature and educating in community. But more importantly, you can sometimes get lost in the fact to think like this thing is sort of only happening to me here, right? But when you step into a space where like, oh, no. It’s happening in Pennsylvania, it’s happening in Michigan, it’s happening in VA. It’s happening. And then you get to share the space with individuals who are advocating to have this done, it just makes it much bigger than New York City or the State of New York. So, this is what brought me here and to just share space with folks.
VALLAS: Well, and I’ve been incredibly excited about your work personally, as well as the New York Clean Slate campaign. But part of what you’ve got going on, you’re making a documentary. You’ve also got a big murals effort going on. Talk a little bit about some of what you’ve got going on that’s not what people maybe think of when they think about traditional advocacy.
SMITH: I think for me, one of the things that the Next100, which is the organization that I was a part of that initially started when I started doing the Clean Slate campaign, what it did for me was it allowed me to bring my whole self to the space. It just was not this sort of a traditional space. So, I’m a creative, right? I’m a DJ, I am a filmmaker, I am a barber, I am a artist. So, it allowed me to incorporate those things into my work. Why? Because those are the very things. That is how I communicate with the community, right? I communicate with the community. I engage the community with art. I engage the community with music. I engage the community with film. And so, it allowed me to bring those things into space where I were using them as a profession or as a creative outlet, but to say, hey. Let me flip it and utilize these things in the space of advocacy.
VALLAS: So, Zaki, the last question I’m gonna throw to you before we bring in the rest of the panel to talk about some of what’s been going on in the state since we talked last about Clean Slate on Off-Kilter. You’ve shared a lot about your personal story as part of your work, what it means to have a record, what those collateral consequences look like, what perpetual punishment looks like. Talk a little bit about why you use art to tell some of that story. And what has that allowed you to do? Who has that allowed you to reach who might not otherwise be reached by, say, the traditional think tank or advocacy organization kind of work?
SMITH: What I do know is that while an op ed may reach some folks, I know that the communities that are directly impacted are not necessarily reading an op ed, right? They’re not digesting an op ed, right? And so, again, me being a creative allows me to literally understand that you have to meet people where they are. Literally! I mean, whether that be language, whether that be, whether that be physical space, you have to meet individuals where they are. And so, art allows me to do that. It allows me to simplify things for folks. It allows people to make a connection where language can sometimes be a barrier. When we begin to talk about law and policies, that language is disconnecting to a lot of the community. And so, if I can make it some way where I could connect it to, let’s say, a person’s hierarchy of need, people understand that I need to put groceries in my refrigerator. They understand that language. And so, if you can just simplify these things— Well, art and the things that I do allows me to simplify and really have a conversation and really connect with another person.
VALLAS: I love that. And I wanna send folks to our show notes to be able to see more about your mural campaign, a little bit more about some of the Clean Slate New York energy that is still very much alive. That bill is gonna become law at some point. And when it does—I’m looking at you, Michigan—it’s gonna become the most expansive Clean Slate law in the country.
VALLAS: So, really, incredibly excited by all of the work that you’ve been leading. And I’m honored to get to know you, and I’m really just enjoying getting to be with you here at this conference. So, we’re gonna let you go. We’re gonna transition to the rest of the panel here. And I’m really excited for your documentary, I just have to say. So, when is that coming out?
SMITH: I don’t have a date. I don’t have a date yet, is because one, I’m still in the campaign, right? So, filming and being in the campaign literally, emotionally and things of that nature, I want to actually have the campaign done, bill signed. Now I can digest what my experience is and say, here’s exactly how I’m going to tell the story of what happened. And so, I also want to thank you again for having me and for us to actually be in the same space doing this. This is dope.
VALLAS: I think back to the first time we actually got to meet in person, which I want to say, was it Tarra Simmons’s campaign fundraiser, right?!
SMITH: Absolutely. It was Tarra Simmons.
VALLAS: Shoutout to Tarra Simmons in Washington.
SMITH: And you had a shorter hair.
VALLAS: Short blonde hair.
SMITH: You had the short cut. That’s right.
VALLAS: It’s all true.
SMITH: Nice. That’s what’s up.
VALLAS: And the pandemic has changed a lot of our looks. [laughs]
SMITH: Absolutely. No doubt.
VALLAS: Zaki, it’s awesome to be with you.
SMITH: No doubt. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
VALLAS: So, I’m gonna bring all of you folks in next. So, I’m gonna transition next to talking to the three of you, three of the folks who have been some of the leaders behind the first states to take up the idea of automatic record clearing, Clean Slate. Which wasn’t that long ago it was kind of a wild idea that people said couldn’t be done. So, I’m sort of pinching myself, realizing how many people are at this conference, how many states have already done this or are now looking to do this. But you guys represent Pennsylvania, that’s you, Sharon, and Utah, that’s you, Noella, and Michigan, that’s you, Josh. So, the first three states in that order to take up Clean Slate. Now, we were talking before we started taping, I believe we counted to nine? That Clean Slate is now law in nine states. Is that right? Is that what we got to?
SHARON DIETRICH: That’s what we got to.
VALLAS: Well, it’s sort of amazing. We should probably shout out some of the states here. Pennsylvania, Utah, Michigan we mentioned, but Connecticut, Virginia, Oklahoma is one of the most recent states. New Jersey, Delaware, Colorado’s on the precipice. It needs to be signed into law by the governor. And, of course, California has its own version, which is not quite Clean Slate but is pretty close. It at least clears records automatically moving forward. So, that’s a pretty amazing list of states. But I was really excited when I realized we were all gonna be together at what feels more like a reunion than a conference. I was excited about the idea of getting together and hearing from each of you about what’s been going on in your states since Clean Slate became law.
I wanna do this in reverse chronological order, in part because Josh, we’re on your home turf in Michigan, in Detroit right now.
HO: That’s right. You’re in Detroit.
VALLAS: So, we got to start with you. And we heard early today from your Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist. We also heard from your boss at Safe and Just Michigan, John Cooper, who deserves a huge shoutout. And we were hearing about Michigan’s Clean Slate law, which I should note is still the most expansive Clean Slate law in the nation. Cough, cough. I am looking at you, Utah and Pennsylvania ‘cause I know you guys are very eager to have that no longer be true! But Josh, Michigan passed its Clean Slate law back in 2020, which feels like a different lifetime at this point. And now you guys are in implementation mode. Talk a little bit about what’s been going on in Michigan since you became the third state to do Clean Slate.
HO: So, the expansion or expungement that happened in Michigan was two phases. The first phase was a very large expansion of the petition process, and I mean a very large expansion that unlimited misdemeanors was part of it, with the exception of what are called serious misdemeanors. And that process went into effect in April, and we’ve basically been spending most of the time since then getting the news out. We spent the first several months doing just a massive amount of webinars and going to places and just talking about it and getting it in the papers in different parts of the state. And then we went to kind of expungement fairs, and we started to do expungement fairs throughout the state. And we’ve been doing that pretty much on a weekly basis. We even have people who work at our organization that’s all they do is just go from expungement fair to expungement fair and just try to make sure that that process is as seamless as possible, at the what we call ICHATs, the things that they have to do to be able to do expungements all happen. And the second phase is the automatic expungement, and that goes into effect next April. So, we’re rolling towards that finally coming into effect. And the reason it hasn’t yet is ‘cause they had to build out the tech, the technology. So, we’re really excited about that coming up.
And you mentioned the lieutenant governor who’s been probably one of the best supporters of this from the very beginning. And I remember being at a, there’s a place called Vocational Village or a group of places in a state called Vocational Villages inside of our facilities, our incarcerated people get to learn skills that they can take, really advanced skills. And he was giving a speech there, and he talked about when he was elected, he was elected to be the governor of all people of Michigan, and that includes the incarcerated population. And so, I’ve been a fan of his ever since. So, it was great to see him on that.
VALLAS: Well, and I got to say, I’m a huge fan of your lieutenant governor as well, and he actually is someone who also brings kind of a really nerdy tech background to the job. So, he’s not just like a politician, he’s also somebody who really cares about technology, which makes him kind of the perfect person to care about and understand the importance of this.
HO: He really is. One of the things that was really great about this is he immediately understood all that ‘cause he had that tech background. He had worked in using technology to help elections. He’d worked on Obama’s campaigns and things like that, so he immediately understood what we were getting at and was really on board from the very beginning.
VALLAS: It is a cool combination of things. So, continuing to go in reverse chronological order here, I’m gonna turn next to, you, Noella. And then Sharon, you’re gonna bat cleanup.
VALLAS: And Noella, Utah was the second state to take up a Clean Slate law. It still feels like a different lifetime. It was 2019. So, we’re rolling the clock back one year further, 2019. And now fast forward to present day. You are overseeing its implementation. Obviously, lots of folks working on this, not just you. And that’s a lot to have on any person’s shoulders, but you are really overseeing a lot of that. And you have a new organization as well that’s playing a big role. Talk about what’s going on in Utah with Clean Slate.
NOELLA SUDBURY: Sure! And thanks for having me on your podcast. So, as you mentioned, our law passed in 2019. It was unanimous. It was supposed to go into effect on May 1st, 2020, but then, of course, COVID happened. And because it’s such a court-based implementation system in Utah, everything got slowed down. So, the good news is we got things back on track. As you mentioned, a lot of hard work, particularly from Code for America and from the courts to implement in Utah. And our law officially went into effect February 10th, 2022, so just a couple months ago.
VALLAS: Incredibly exciting. How’s it going so far?
SUDBURY: It’s going great! People are excited in Utah. We kicked it off with a big press conference. I can tell you the numbers. In Utah, over 450,000 Utahns will have at least one record eligible for automatic expungement under the law. So, record clearing has officially begun, and they hope to get through that backlog of eligible records by the end of this calendar year.
VALLAS: Incredibly exciting. Talk a little bit about your new organization too. What is it? What’s it all about?
SUDBURY: Sure. So, I have two organizations, Clean Slate Utah, which was formed to raise awareness of Utah’s Clean Slate law. We just hired our first full-time paid executive director.
SUDBURY: Her name is Destiny Garcia. She is a woman in long-term recovery, is an amazing person, has rebuilt her life from homelessness, has so much passion for this issue, and is going to be just such an incredible leader. So, we’re very excited about that. And then Rasa is kind of my new company, and that entity is going to continue to help people who are not eligible for automatic clearance and need help getting through the petition-based process. The most exciting thing going on with Rasa is notification continues to be an issue, and so we are trying to design a mobile app that will make it very simple for somebody to type in their name, date of birth. We’ll do an identity verification—that was really important to justice-involved people—and the app will tell someone what’s on their record, what is eligible for automatic expungement, petition-based expungement, maybe not eligible, or could be eligible in the future.
VALLAS: Which is a particularly big deal. And we were talking about technology before, but obviously, record clearing and even what’s eligible for record clearing is really complicated, and it really differs state to state.
VALLAS: And so, even just knowing whether you have records that are eligible to be cleared is sometimes something that can take help from a lawyer if you don’t have help from technology like that.
SUDBURY: Absolutely. And I can already see how helpful it will be as Utah’s Clean Slate law is going into effect. And I’m receiving hundreds of emails a day saying, “Am I eligible?” And that’s all it will say. And then you start getting into the conversation, and you can see, to your point, just how complicated it is to go through that statutory criteria. And while Clean Slate is wonderful, it, in some ways, adds a layer of complexity to that eligibility analysis. So, it’s not just am I eligible, but am I eligible for automatic clearance and when? And the waiting periods are different. And so, I think it will be a very helpful tool for people just to know where they stand and what their options are. And there truly is options for everyone. So, hope to help can bring a lot of hope to a lot of people in Utah.
VALLAS: And I’m really excited to see where that goes because obviously, that’s not just a Utah problem. That’s something that could be replicable, I would think, in every state right now.
SUDBURY: Yeah, and we hope to share what we’ve learned and maybe even be able to use our app in other states to help the whole movement with this notification issue that people are struggling with.
VALLAS: Such a big deal. Sharon, I’m gonna turn next to you. You are last, but you are surely not least, because among other titles and hats that you wear at different points, I think it’s safe to call you the godmother of Clean Slate, although maybe at this point, Clean Slate enjoys many godmothers. But you were definitely the OG godmother of Clean Slate. Pennsylvania was the first state to take up this wild experiment of automatic record clearing, automated record clearing. That law became law, that bill became law, in 2018.
I wanna ask where things are going right now. And I know there’s some exciting stuff happening that’s actually gonna even expand the existing Clean Slate law that you’ve got now. But talk a little bit about where this came from. Here we are talking about all these states that’ve taken this up and all the momentum at this conference right now. Talk a little bit about where Clean Slate came from and how it happened in Pennsylvania.
DIETRICH: Thank you, Rebecca, for having me on the podcast yet again to talk about Clean Slate. Clean Slate came from my staff sitting around the office trying to figure out how we could possibly deal with the seemingly infinite number of cases that needed to be expunged or sealed because we would keep working harder every day, every year than the day or year before and still not make adequate progress. And so, we came up with the idea in terms of trying to maximize how we could help people of what about if we did this by automation? We knew the data that existed. We understood that it could be deployed in a way that would basically seal up a case. And so, we started to really define for ourselves what this would look like. Meanwhile, you and I wrote a paper. What year was that, Rebecca?
VALLAS: Oh god, 2014? I think I was definitely still blonde.
DIETRICH: Yes, you were, no doubt. And we wrote a paper about collateral consequences, and we were thinking about what should be the big bang recommendation of this paper that’s kind of new and au courant? And we put forward Clean Slate. And so, that took the idea sort of into the mainstream and defined it for the public. And from there, you helped connect us with the Justice Action Network, and a bill was filed in Pennsylvania. And now we got—are you ready—40 million cases sealed to date.
VALLAS: I feel like we need like a little CNN ticker or something, right, that’s counting up every time someone gets a Clean Slate. But that’s a wild number!
DIETRICH: It certainly is.
VALLAS: That’s a wild number. I mean, but, you know, folks could be listening and going, “Man. Way to go, Pennsylvania. That’s so great that you did that.” But that, in some ways, is only the beginning of what’s been going on in Pennsylvania with Clean Slate.
DIETRICH: Very much the beginning. So, let me tell you what is currently being sealed. It is, first of all, non-convictions. Secondly, what in Pennsylvania we call summary offenses, which is the lowest level of offenses. Those two categories by far are the predominant types of cases that are being automatically sealed. The third is most misdemeanors, most non-violent misdemeanors. And that’s not nothing, but that’s where it stops in terms of eligibility.
VALLAS: That’s the current law.
DIETRICH: That’s right.
VALLAS: That’s what became the first Clean Slate law in the nation. It’s limited. It’s misdemeanors and below only is basically what you’re describing.
DIETRICH: Yeah. And honestly, our legislature was taking a leap of faith when they agreed to enact something that was going to do this process that had never been done before. So, it wasn’t really the time to get eligibility expanded a whole lot. We had limited eligibility in Pennsylvania. We did, as a part of the Clean Slate law, expand it somewhat. But really there, the focus was on getting the process enacted.
VALLAS: So, that takes us to present day, which is that you guys have not stopped there. You have actually decided to go back and to work to expand the law. And it’s sort of hard to be sitting here with someone from Michigan and not think that maybe there’s a little bit of competition going on between states. I know if—
HO: We all root for each other, to be honest. We want everyone cleared. [laughs]
VALLAS: If Representative Jordan Harris and Representative Sheryl Delozier, the dynamic duo, bipartisan duo from Pennsylvania, were sitting here right now, they would be very upset, Josh, and say, “We’re coming for you, Michigan! We’re coming for you!”
HO: I’ve been on many calls and many webinars with Representative Harris, and we’ve had exactly that kind of thing.
VALLAS: And I have often had the honor of being there, which is part of why I have a real mental image of what he would be saying if he were here. But Sharon, that dynamic duo, that kind of Republican and Democratic odd couple as they’ve sometimes been called, including, I think in the New York Times, they’re still your champions. And they’ve said, “No, no, we’re not satisfied with what we have. This was the first step.” Now they’ve come back, and you all at Community Legal Services are working with them with a broad coalition of strange bedfellows yet again to expand that law to include, as I understand it, drug felonies. How is that going so far? Talk a little bit about that effort. What are we seeing so far?
DIETRICH: Yeah, we’ve been working on the bill for over a year now. The content of the bill has been drafted for a long time. But what we’ve tried to do is to build our coalition to include virtually everybody. That’s our goal. And over the year, most notably, we got the Pennsylvania DAs Association on board. The district attorneys will tell you that they support the bill because it’s a public safety subject matter. But we have many groups of many different stripes. We’ve got your business and conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Pennsylvania Chamber, which is really important to many of the members of our General Assembly. We’ve got, of course, the directly impacted organizations and other policy advocacy organizations. But then we also have a really exciting list of statewide groups from a lot of different walks of life, including domestic violence advocates, drug and alcohol service providers, the workforce development boards around the state. And I’m probably forgetting somebody I should remember. But the point is, it’s really exciting about how much acclamation this bill has.
VALLAS: So, at some point, we’ll be on a future panel conversation talking about where the states are. And Pennsylvania will look at Michigan and go, “Hey, Michigan, you gonna catch up at any point soon?” And I look forward to that day and the friendly state competition that happens ‘cause everyone wants to push everyone to have the most expansive laws. That’s how this happens.
Josh, I’m gonna come back to you and ask Michigan, a lot of what you’ve been doing, as you said, is getting out the word and helping folks know what this new law is and what it means for them. Can you talk a little bit about some of the people who are being helped and who are going to be helped? You yourself are really not a former, you’re a current organizer within the directly impacted community. You just happen to play a policy analyst these days at Safe and Just Michigan.
HO: Yeah, it’s interesting. And I think Zaki was talking about this earlier, too, and I think in a really interesting way. I mean, if you’re not a policy expert, the laws, and even after all the work we’ve done to get these laws done, they’re still incredibly complex. And nobody without, you know, who isn’t a total policy wonk is going to be able to understand these things at first glance. And so, and a lot of people don’t even know that they passed. I mean, they just don’t get the news that way. And so, really continuing to try to find new ways to reach people and educate them and make sure they have access to the information so that they can know that this is available to them. And for some of them to know that in just about a year, they’re gonna be able to walk into an apartment complex, or they’re gonna be able to walk into a job interview for the first time in decades and be able to feel comfortable that they actually have a real chance. I mean, that’s really what we’re doing is trying to make sure everybody knows that this has passed, that it’s happening, that this is how you can take advantage of it and get the best advice possible.
VALLAS: And you personally are not gonna be helped by the Clean Slate law. You’ve talked on the show about why you are fighting for it anyway, right, why you think this is important anyway.
HO: Yeah. I mean, the whole reason I started doing this work has very little to do with my own story. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. I made it through prison fairly well. I mean, not a lot of bad things happened to me. I saw bad things happen every day, but they didn’t happen to me. But I catalogued. Every day that I was in there, I saw something that I thought was just terrible or unjust or could be done better or should be done better. I saw so many things from the beginning of the criminal justice experience through the end of the criminal justice experience—not that it ever really ends—that just made me feel like I had an obligation to keep, to doing that work. And so, a lot of, almost all of my best friends are people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, and that’s the community I care about. And so, the work I do is to ensure that as many of those people get assistance, and if it’s not me, that’s fine. It’s, you know, someday it may be me, but we’ll worry about that down the road. I want as many people to have that experience.
I’ve been very lucky. I got to come out. I had a couple of really tough years. I worked through a lot of the things everybody worked through, and then I started getting opportunities and opportunities a lot of people don’t get, and that’s worked out well for me. But I want every single person who comes back and wants to make a change in their life and do the right thing to have the opportunity to have a better life and to do better. Because if you don’t do that, what are people going to do? And I just don’t want, I just know so many people. I’ve met so many people in my time in the criminal justice system who are, you know, I found to be incredible people, and I want all of them to have the same opportunities that I’ve had.
VALLAS: I’m gonna put in a quick plug for your podcast, Josh, because for folks who wanna hear more from you, often talking to other folks who are directly impacted by the broken criminal legal system, your podcast is called Decarceration Nation. I happen to be your #1 fan and biggest cheerleader. But as I said to you over lunch, if anyone else thinks that they have earned that title, I’m willing to fight them for it.
VALLAS: You can find it wherever podcasts are found.
Noella, who’s being helped by Utah’s law now that it’s actually going into effect? You put some of the numbers to it, but you’ve met some of the people who are actually getting their records cleared.
SUDBURY: Yeah. So, from the moment the law went into effect, we started receiving hundreds and hundreds of emails from people wanting to know whether they have been impacted. And these people have just the most amazing, heartbreaking stories. There’s so many paths to the criminal justice system. We’ve talked to people looking for housing, people looking for jobs, a gentleman who has a child with some health issues that just wants stable health insurance for his child, a woman who wants to be a chaperone on a school field trip. You just, it always reminds me when I hear these stories just how hard it is and how many different areas of your life that it impacts. And luckily for many of those people, they are gonna be helped by this law. And it’s been really exciting to see all of that hard work actually change lives and have people say, “I’m shaking right now. Like, this is the best day of my life. I never thought that I would be free of this.” And that has been so rewarding and so powerful to see.
VALLAS: Hearing you say that makes me think about someone who also deserves to be namechecked in this conversation, someone who’s also been on this show, Ronald Lewis, who was one of the first champions and sort of spokespeople for the Clean Slate bill before it became law in Pennsylvania. And Sharon, I think Ronald came on the show with you at some point talking about Clean Slate Pennsylvania. But I remember him saying at the signing ceremony to Governor Wolf, he was asked by a member of the press, “Is this the best day of your life?” Because here he was talking about this bill becoming law, being signed officially by the governor. And he didn’t miss a beat, and he said, “It’s the second best day of my life, because the first best day was when the Eagles won the Super Bowl.”
VALLAS: Which was a totally fair answer! Totally fair answer. But second best day, second best day of his life.
So, I wanna turn next to a little bit of a real talk question, which I gave you guys a heads up I was gonna spring on you, but feels like it’s a necessary conversation in this moment. And it’s actually part of what we’re gonna be talking about at the conference tomorrow as part of a panel I’m gonna be helping to moderate. The rhetoric, the conversation, the debate, the narrative around criminal justice reform has changed pretty significantly in recent weeks, months. There’s been a little bit of a turn. We had a chunk of time that was everybody was groovy, kumbaya around smart on crime. It was time to put tough on crime in the rearview. We needed to understand it was time to be smart on crime. In fact, there were conferences called Smart on Crime that were bipartisan, it was so well agreed upon. And in recent months, we have started to see a real return, a real resurgence of tough-on-crime rhetoric. And it’s no coincidence that we’re heading into the midterms. We’ve got a lot of folks who are running for office, and we’re not gonna make this into that conversation because we are a 501(c)(3)-funded show.
VALLAS: But that is certainly the backdrop of this moment is a lot of folks, including, just gonna call it out, a lot of Republicans throwing red meat to the base by making what sound like very scary accusations about criminal justice reform and what some people are alleging has come from it. And that has really changed the tenor of the conversation on criminal justice reform in pretty big ways. In fact, Sharon, you and Josh and I were all on a panel last week at another conference having this very conversation. So, I would love to give each of you an opportunity to weigh in. And Josh, I’m gonna put you on the spot first to talk a little bit about why we still need to be doing something called criminal justice reform, even though we’re hearing all of this, “Oh, no! We have to be tough on crime,” out there in the zeitgeist and why we still need to be doing something like mass clearing of criminal records, even though it’s gonna get harder because of that shift.
HO: I mean, we need to do this work because the alternative is our communities are less safe if we don’t. The alternative to people doing things like getting jobs, having safe housing is that they don’t have safe housing. They return to criminal economies. And they, as I’ve said many times in many different places, radical desperation is not a good recipe for public safety. And this notion, it’s unfortunate that the way media and other things work is it’s set up in such a way that people don’t think about what they’re hearing as much as they get scared by what they’re reading. And the truth is that two things can happen at one time. You can have something like a COVID pandemic, which creates about 16 different reasons why there’s been an increase in, for instance, homicides. And then you can also have criminal justice reform that is actually reducing crime. Both of those things can happen at the same time, and we know they are happening at the same time. And the reverse of that is what you hear all the time. But it doesn’t make any sense, and it’s based on a very simple fallacy that’s used time and time again. And it’s this notion that you can take a national trend, and you can attribute it to local causes, and that makes no sense.
For instance, one of the largest increases in homicides is in Fort Worth. Fort Worth is a place that has a tough-on-crime prosecutor, anything but a criminal justice reform administration. But that’s also other places where they’re arguing. This is a national trend, and it’s not, if you do bail reform in New York, that doesn’t explain why there’s a homicide increase in Fort Worth or Jacksonville. And unfortunately, people are explaining it as if that is the answer, and it’s clearly not the answer. We have to be able to hold what seem to be contradictory ideas in our head at the same time and make sense of that. If we don’t, we’re gonna continue to have terrible policies and terrible outcomes.
VALLAS: Well, and again, and I don’t wanna get too partisan, but it is part of what we’re commenting on. So, just to be a little accurate about this, it’s also really important for folks to understand that there are a lot of people who are quietly not fans of criminal justice reform, as it was all the rage for quite some time. We had our kind of a handful of opponents hiding in the closet, waiting for their moment who now see an uptick in crime, which, as you noted and as you talked about at length on a prior episode of Off-Kilter last fall, is explainable not by criminal justice reform, but by an unprecedented pandemic among other things. That offers an opening for folks who’ve been looking for any chance to say, “Oh! We gotta roll all these reforms back! These reforms are dangerous,” right? That’s not a new playbook, unfortunately, and it’s certainly not a new playbook when we have an election coming up.
Sharon, this is also something you’ve done a lot of thinking about and a lot of talking to other advocates about because you’re not pulling the foot off the gas saying, “Oh, my god! We’re hearing tough on crime said again! We can’t do our Clean Slate bill!” You’re heading full steam ahead, and you’ve got a lot of bipartisan support and business support and a strange bedfellows coalition that’s even bigger and more extensive and diverse than the last time that you ran a Clean Slate campaign, even though it’s a more challenging moment with a more challenging zeitgeist. What are you saying to folks? What is your advice to folks who are listening and going, “But now is not the time to run a criminal justice reform bill?”
DIETRICH: See, what Josh says about thinking too simplistic is absolutely right, and I’m going to raise another theme around that thought. And that is to put this bill of Clean Slate in the box of this criminal justice reform is unduly conscriptive because it is, in actuality, a jobs bill. I came at this work from being an employment lawyer in Legal Aid, and it was because just untold numbers of Philadelphians came in and said, “I cannot get a decent job because of my criminal record.” And this is a more important time than ever to expand the workforce! Anyone who has waited in line at a store because there aren’t enough staff to run the store or is waiting for a car to come into the dealership, which is not being produced because there’s not enough staff to put the cars together, everyone is affected by this issue that we do not have enough workers at the moment.
And the simplest and most reasonable way to solve that problem, in addition to making life better for people with records, is to say, clear that record. Let that person who presents no real risk of recidivism work and fill those gaps in the labor economy. That is why this law is not gonna be rolled back, because the Pennsylvania Chamber does not want this law to be rolled back. And I’m feeling pretty secure that we are not gonna see any assault on it, and in fact, that our bill is going to pass.
VALLAS: Now, each of you is, nobody who’s sitting here right now is from a blue state. I might call Pennsylvania a purple state. I might call Michigan a purple state. Noella, I’m gonna call Utah a red state.
SUDBURY: I think that’s pretty safe.
VALLAS: I think you’re holding down the red state count over here. Curious what you have to add coming from a state that’s about as Republican as it gets, and yet which really did feel very strongly, unanimously such, as you noted before, that this was something that they could all get behind. Is there still that same level of support for Clean Slate now that we’re hearing a lot of tough-on-crime rhetoric, but you guys are actually deep into implementation?
SUDBURY: I think there is. I’m actually encouraged by what’s going on. I mean, I’m discouraged by what’s going on nationally! But the thing I love about Clean Slate is it’s not a partisan issue. It really is just a common-sense issue. And that has remained the case in Utah. The Chamber still remains incredibly supportive. Had a conversation with them just a couple weeks ago about Clean Slate is wonderful, but what more could the Chamber do to advance second-chance employment policies? And truly, we need workers, as Sharon said. I mean, I would echo everything that she says. We’ve been putting on these free webinars to raise awareness of Clean Slate, and we ask each person who registers what barriers they’re experiencing because of their criminal record and what their goals are in getting an expungement. Overwhelmingly, the number one response is, “I want a job” or “I want a better job” or “I can get a job, and then they run my background check. I get let go 30 days later.” This is a real thing. And for employers, they need workers. And so, it’s crazy to me that we have all of these employers, we have all of these jobs that need to be filled, and employers saying, “We have no workers.” And then I see these hardworking, skilled, amazing people with records who want nothing more than to get a job.
And so, I think it’s because of this issue that the timing is right that you will continue to see broad support for these policies across the nation. And as Josh said, too, it makes our community safer. So, it makes our communities safer, it makes our economy stronger, it strengthens our families, it provides opportunities for parents, it tackles intergenerational poverty, intergenerational incarceration. These are all real issues that we’re all facing. And I’m encouraged because I think people get that, and I hope that people will continue to support it.
VALLAS: And Josh, I mentioned that you came on, you’ve been on Off-Kilter many times, I have to note. We were actually talking before this about how you might be the guest who’s been on Off-Kilter the most. We think this might be your fifth appearance. I think I owe you some swag
VALLAS: We’ve talked about how I’ve fallen down on the job on that. So, it’s another commitment for that and another round of thanks. But the last time you came on the show, and we should give a shoutout to the other guest on that episode, which is Ames Grawert from the Brennan Center—
HO: One of my very good friends.
VALLAS: —who we all know and who’s brilliant. We were talking about a lot of the research involved in exactly what Noella and you and Sharon were just talking about. It’s not just a talking point that clearing records makes our communities safer. What do we know from the research about why that is so?
HO: Well, I mean, there’s been several different studies that’ve been done, generally referred to as desistance research.
VALLAS: You mean people desisting from crime.
HO: Yeah. And so, the two major studies that people talk about are Nakamura and Blumstein, which was the earlier one done, and then a later one done, oddly enough, on Michigan by J.J. Prescott and Sonja Starr from the University of Michigan, although Sonja’s moved on, I think, to the University of Chicago now.
VALLAS: And both folks who we’ve also had on this show, so you’re naming all my favorite people. And please continue.
HO: [chuckles] And so, in both cases, what it says is that, essentially, if people desist from crime after they return from incarceration or from a sentence, that over a certain amount of time—depending on the kind of crime that they committed, might be a different period of time for each—that they’re, they actually get to a point where they’re less likely to commit a new crime than people who have never committed a crime before. And so, they’re actually safer than members of what we would consider to be the general population. And so, the idea is to try to craft the law in such a way, or the laws in different states in such a way, that we get that benefit, that we’re not wasting that benefit, that it’s not an opportunity cost of the way we write our laws. And so, I think that’s ultimately what Clean Slate does, one of the few laws that actually tries to do something that’s that smart and sophisticated at the same time is to try to make sure that we’re getting the full advantage of people who’ve desisted from the moment that they’re most likely to not only be not as much of a risk, but less of a risk than people in the general population.
VALLAS: And I think—
HO: I hope that I explained it okay. [laughs]
VALLAS: I think so. And I’m gonna jump in and add a sentence that maybe helps break that down for people who are not researchers, right, and who are going, “Desistance research, what’s that?” But basically, to put it in English, a person who has a prior conviction who has remained crime free for basically 4 to 7 years, depending on the type of record that they have, they pose no greater risk of committing a future crime than a member of the general population. And in fact, they pose less of a risk, as you were saying. So, the idea that we treat people as criminals, right, that we tag people with the scarlet letter, F or M, whatever it is, for the rest of their lives, makes absolutely no sense, not just from a moral perspective, not just from a justice perspective, but even from a research perspective, right? It’s throw the baby out with the bathwater.
HO: I wanna add one more thing. And one of the things that I think is really important as we’re moving forward and we’re trying to move past what Michigan did, is that the research that J.J. and Sonja did was because of the way Michigan’s expungement law worked before they could actually look in data on felonies, which is something that was unique. And so, they were able to show that even for people with felony convictions, which I think is what people actually, that this is true for them as well. And one thing that I always use from the research is this notion that is that people who are over 50 who’ve done more than, who’ve done, in five years have less than a 1% recidivism rate. And this is from later research that Sonja did. And to me, when someone comes out, and they can’t get, they still, despite that fact, they’re still struggling, that’s the worst outcome we can, you know, we could, it’s the opposite of what we should be hoping for.
VALLAS: It’s the opposite of reentry. It’s basically throwing people away.
HO: And I wanted to mention felonies because I want people to understand that ultimately, what we want is for everyone who’s reached that desistance point to have the opportunity to get the benefits of that desistance.
VALLAS: Which is a hugely critical point, right? ‘Cause you can end up with folks saying, “Well, I’m with you. I like this idea, but let’s just do it with misdemeanors.” And that is where states started, and Sharon was telling the story, right? It was kind of necessary to get people comfortable with this “wild” idea of doing— I’m putting wild in scared quotes. It’s not wild; it’s very common sense, but it was wild when it was new, right? It was wild sounding to some people. “We’re gonna do this automatically?” So, to get folks there in the first place, keeping it somewhat constrained as a first step was necessary. But that’s why you guys pushed to go to felonies in Michigan in your first bill.
HO: And we were at a, you know, in a thing earlier today where someone brought this example of someone was talking about barber occupational licensing, and someone was talking about barbers. And some famous person said, “I don’t want a person who committed a murder cutting my hair.” And my first thought was, “Well, what is it you’d rather they do?” You know, I’d prefer they’re cutting hair. [laughs] You know? I mean, that’s…. We have to look at it as like the best way to bring people back. Well, if…. Someone talked, I think you were talking at the conference last week about unicorns. Given all of the barriers to people returning from incarceration, everything from like when I came back, I had $16,000 in criminal justice debt and no job.
VALLAS: Which is low for some people.
HO: Which is low for some people. And you have all these barriers, and we talk about all these things. If someone comes back and desists, we should be throwing a party! [laughs] These are unicorns. These are people we should celebrate, and they say— When something good happens for them, it sends a message to everybody else who’s still in the system that you can succeed! And that’s what we want! We don’t want failure. We want success.
DIETRICH: And if I could just add, building on Josh’s point about people over age 50. People over age 50 still face severe barriers based on their records, even if they have had a 30, 40, 50-year period of desistence. We saw clients at CLS all the time who could not get into senior housing, even if they were immobile because they had a stroke or something! We see people who cannot get into nursing homes, and it’s really necessary that at some point we get to a place that you have to think, who is against somebody in that scenario being able to fully participate in life as we know it in the United States?
VALLAS: Yeah, Sharon, as I’m hearing you say that, and as Josh was saying that as well, I mean, I’m flashing back to some of the early community trainings that you and I used to do back in the day when I was a Community Legal Services lawyer learning from you in Philadelphia. We used to go to North Philly, and we used to hang out with State Representative Shirley Kitchen, who would organize with the best and bring everyone in. And the room would be full of people with walkers, right? Because all these folks who had, you know, their record was from 40 years ago! And it didn’t matter because it was as much a barrier to employment and housing and education and being a chaperone at their grandkids’ school, as Noella said, as if it had happened yesterday. And that’s a really, really important point, I think, to underscore as we start to run out of time here.
So, I think Sharon, you’re gonna get the last word. As the godmother who got all of this started, you started the story with it was 2014 when this idea of Clean Slate and making record clearing automatic first saw the light of day in that report I still remember fondly from Community Legal Services and the Center for American Progress. How does it feel to be at this conference with over 100 people from around the country all flying in, saying, “I wanna do this, or “I am doing this,” or “I already did do this in my state,” and this amazing team now running this organization called the Clean Slate Initiative?
DIETRICH: Well, before I get to that, I have to say I think it’s fundamentally unfair that you’ve had Josh on the podcast more often than me. But having cleared that up from my chest—
VALLAS: I was a little worried about what I’d said!
HO: Totally fair. [laughs]
DIETRICH: And my first time on the podcast.
VALLAS: Oh, Josh, you’re killing me! You’re killing me!
SUDBURY: You started it.
DIETRICH: Having said that, returning to the more serious matter at hand, I am so happy that this little idea that we put out there that was completely theoretical is massive. It was designed to be massive. And it is, in fact, turning out to be massive. And you know what? I’m not aware of one single problem in the United States of America, in any of the states that have implemented this law, where the fact that somebody’s record was automatically sealed is the cause of it. I’m just not. Forty million cases in Pennsylvania, I’m aware of no bad story coming from that. So, there’s every reason for this Clean Slate movement to continue to expand and to, you know, we’re really happy about the nine states. We got to get 50 plus three territories, and I think we can. And we will have rolled back one of the worst injustices of my lifetime, for sure, because as I’ve been known to say, I think that having a criminal record is a civil rights issue and truly the most important civil rights issue of my lifetime.
VALLAS: Well, and I can’t think of a better place to end this conversation. Thank you to all of you for taking the time. I’m honored to get to know each of you and to be in this work with each of you. Sharon Dietrich is the litigation director at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. Josh Ho is a policy analyst at Safe and Just Michigan, and also, as I mentioned, host of the Decarceration Nation podcast, which you should go find and subscribe to. Noella Sudbury is the executive director of Clean Slate Utah. And also, say the name of your new other entity again.
VALLAS: Which is spelled?
SUDBURY: R a s a.
VALLAS: And we’ll have info on all three of them and their great projects in show notes. Thanks to all of you. This was really wonderful. [theme music returns]
SUDBURY: Thank you!
DIETRICH: Thanks, Rebecca.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your pods. And for the Superfans, you can find a full archive of all past episodes and show transcripts over at TCF.org/Off-Kilter.
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