County debuts 'Project Reset' to help residents clear, seal records
August 20, 2019
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald was joined by Judge Elliot Howsie, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr., Chief Public Defender T. Matthew Dugan, Court Records Director Michael McGeever and other officials in announcing the launch of ‘Project Reset.’
Project Reset (https://bit.ly/ACProjectReset) is an effort to assist residents in determining whether anything can be done regarding their criminal record. A key component of the effort was the creation of an online tool to help determine whether a record can be expunged or is eligible to be sealed under the Clean Slate Law.
In addition to providing dedicated employees to address questions within the Public Defender’s Office and Court Records, attorneys from the Public Defender’s will assist residents eligible for expungement whose charges were filed in Allegheny County.
“Some 73.5 million people in the United States have been arrested on a felony charge, meaning that 29.5 percent of residents have a criminal record, and that does not even take into consideration those with misdemeanor charges,” said Mr. Fitzgerald. “For many, that one charge defines them because it has the power to impact much of their future. Project Reset is about helping those residents determine whether their criminal records can be expunged or sealed and providing resources to allow them a fresh start.”
In 2018, Governor Wolf signed the Clean Slate Law into effect which provides for the automatic sealing of criminal records, a process which just began in June of this year. The state estimates that by June 2020 there will be 30 million records sealed in Pennsylvania’s court system.
Part of the reason for the creation of the Clean Slate Law was a finding in a recent study that only 6.5 percent of people eligible for record clearing filed petitions. The study found that people didn’t have access to lawyers, couldn’t afford filing fees, or didn’t know that their record was eligible to be sealed or expunged.
“This initiative speaks to the work that has been done in the Public Defender’s Office to increase the quality of representation that its attorneys provide to clients,” said Judge Howsie. “Given that the office has been able to achieve better outcomes for its clients, because of the improved quality of representation, this is the next logical step. Helping those who are eligible to take the steps necessary to remove that record and reset their lives is an important part of the services provided by the county.”
Expungement is a more detailed legal process that can clear charges and minor convictions from a person’s record that don’t fall under the Clean Slate Law. The Public Defender’s Office, Court Records, CountyStat and Computer Services have partnered together to create an online quiz for individuals to determine if they may be eligible for an expungement, or to find out if their charges may be automatically sealed. While the tool can be used by anyone in Pennsylvania, the Public Defender’s Office is offering services to individuals who may be eligible for an expungement and whose charges were filed in Allegheny County.
“Justice is a process and when that process involves allowing people to take advantage of clean slate and expungements, we must all work together to make that as easy and seamless as possible for those individuals,” said District Attorney Zappala.
The Office of the Public Defender has already begun working to provide expungements to former clients saving at least $22 and up to $250 in filing fees. The program also provides guidance through what is typically a confusing process. Because of the impact that such an effort can have, the office is offering this service to clients after certain charges have been withdrawn or dismissed against them at the preliminary hearing level.
If a client’s case is withdrawn or dismissed at a Magisterial District Court, the client is informed on how to obtain a free expungement through the City Court office. Additionally, the office’s expungement intake clerk is reaching out to all eligible clients to schedule appointment times to complete the necessary paperwork.
While the program currently allows free expungements to clients after a full withdrawal or dismissal of all charges against them only if those charges are considered ‘non-violent’. Since beginning this program in July, the Office of the Public Defender has filed 13 Expungement Motions and staff are currently processing six more. The goal is to expand the program to offer expungements on all charges.
The Project Reset webpage also provides links to information on the process for a state or federal pardon, highlights the county’s Ban the Box initiative, and also speaks to the Fair Chance Business Pledge championed by the County Executive. Additional resources are expected to be added in the coming months.
The Office of Public Defender will host an Expungement Clinic at the Carnegie Library of Homewood, 7101 Hamilton Avenue, on Saturday, Oct. 26, from 10-2 p.m. Attorneys from the office will volunteer their time to assist community members with expungement eligibility and petitions.