She’s Wiping the Slate Clean on 30 Million Criminal Records

Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.

Source Bryan Anselm for OZY

Why you should care

Because automatic criminal record expungement is sweeping the country.

Fair and Equal: An OZY series on fixing the skewed scales of American justice. Fair and Equal: An OZY series on fixing the skewed scales of American justice.

Thirty-two years ago, Sharon Dietrich was sitting in one of her first work events at her new job at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) when a man approached her. Like about 70 million Americans, he had a criminal record, and it was hindering his efforts to find a job. “Even though we haven’t been seeing those cases,” she thought, “I bet this happens to a lot of people.”

Sure enough, after studying CLS’ intake of new employment law clients, she found that 68 percent wanted to seal their criminal records, and studies have shown about 1 in 3 U.S. adults has a criminal record. Decades after her first encounter with that man seeking a job, she would develop a proposal for the automatic sealing of criminal records. 

Three decades later, Dietrich, now the group’s litigation director and managing attorney, stood behind Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf last year as he signed a first-of-its-kind state law — the Clean Slate Law — to automatically seal records for criminal convictions, and the movement is spreading fast. Utah passed clean slate legislation in March, and Michigan, California and Connecticut are all considering laws of their own. “The only area of law I have ever represented people where they regularly cry is when they get their records expunged,” Dietrich says. “To know that we were doing that for millions of people was the biggest thrill you could have in a legal career.”

A good part of it happened over several glasses of wine, which is always at the root of good, creative policy-making.

Rebecca Vallas, Center for American Progress

It’s been an unlikely career from the start.

Growing up in small-town Hamburg, Pennsylvania, there was no expectation for Dietrich to become the first in her immediate family to attend college. And certainly, no one expected her to go to law school. Her steelworker father didn’t even finish high school.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and completing a judicial clerkship, she knew she wanted to work in public interest law, but couldn’t land such a job. She accepted an offer to work on class action suits in private practice but reneged once she got a call from CLS to become a staff attorney. It meant leaving a lucrative private sector career path for a job that, in 1987, paid $23,000. “I have not regretted that decision for a moment,” she says.

The mission that would become her crowning achievement took decades to flower. In December 2014, Dietrich and Rebecca Vallas, head of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank, jointly published “One Strike and You’re Out,” a report delineating the negative consequences of a criminal record. Dietrich and Vallas, who started her legal career at CLS and counts Dietrich as a mentor, had spent years considering a solution to seal criminal records. “A good part of it happened over several glasses of wine, which is always at the root of good, creative policy-making,” Vallas said. At the time, Pennsylvanians — and residents of many states — had to petition the state for each record expungement.

The Coalition for Public Safety, a bipartisan network of organizations including CAP that’s focused on criminal justice reform, took notice of the CAP report. From there, Charles and David Koch pledged their support, as did Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Uber. Its first test was in Pennsylvania, where Republicans control the legislature and a Democrat is governor.

Bill signing - CAP, Sharon and Guv

From left: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, Rebecca Vallas, Sharon Dietrich and Erin Cohan celebrate the signing of the Clean Slate Law.

In her home state, Dietrich led the way. “She’s viewed as the godmother of criminal record reform there,” Vallas said. “Anyone in Harrisburg knows that if they are touching these issues, they need to call Sharon.” Once she picked up the phone, she helped navigate the hurdles. “It’s really hard to get a bill passed,” Dietrich says. “It’s much easier to stop legislation from being passed.” After the bill passed the state Senate unanimously, it could well have died in committee in the state House. Then-Rep. Ron Marsico, the Judiciary Committee chairman and a graduate of The Ohio State University, was not sold on the legislation. 

He was not sold, that is, until Dietrich and her allies arranged for former Ohio State football standouts Malcolm Jenkins, now a defensive back for the Philadelphia Eagles, and Maurice Clarett, a national championship–winning running back, to visit Marsico. The gridiron lobbyists secured Marsico’s vote, and the bill made its way to the House floor.

After it passed 188–2, Dietrich called Vallas in Washington, prompting screaming loud enough that Vallas’ office colleagues rushed in to see what was wrong. What they’d done, in fact, was kick off a process that has already automatically sealed 10 million criminal records — on the way to an estimated 30 million by next year — for those who had a second- or third-degree misdemeanor and who have been free of convictions for more than 10 years. (The records are still visible to police, but not employers or landlords.) “Ten million cases may be more than have been sealed in the United States up to now, for all I know,” Dietrich says.

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Sharon Dietrich at the Community Legal Services offices on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia.

Source Bryan Anselm for OZY

Now, Pennsylvania serves as a blueprint for many other states. Jesse Kelley, government affairs manager for R Street, a conservative think tank supporting the Michigan legislation, sees it as a worthy fight. “Expungement in the lives of the daily American or Pennsylvanian has been shifted because of the work that Sharon has done,” Kelley says.

While the legislation makes its way around the country, Dietrich will keep working to administer the program in Pennsylvania. Through CLS, she is writing a paper to propose tweaks to the legislation that she believes could give it a broader impact. “I think that we did something pioneering,” she says, “but the sky is the limit.”  

OZY’s Five Questions with Sharon Dietrich 

  • What’s the last book you read? Inland by Téa Obreht.
  • What do you worry about? My email inbox. 
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? The Phillies. 
  • Who’s your hero? Billie Jean King. 
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? Going to Machu Picchu.

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