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United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey Provides CoAS Faculty with Grant for The Promise’s New City-Wide Expungement Initiative

By Liz Waldie

person in black shirt looking at piece of paper, arms wearing striped sleeves are also looking at the paper


March 28, 2022

For individuals convicted of a summary offense, such as retail theft, who have had no subsequent arrests for a designated number of years, expungement—the erasure of a formal arrest or conviction record—may be a path to a fresh start.

In Pennsylvania, the Clean Slate Law mandates that certain arrest records be automatically sealed after 10 years without additional convictions. However, sealed records are not fully erased and are accessible to law enforcement. These records often follow individuals throughout their lives, resurfacing in instances such as FBI background checks.

“A history of criminal justice involvement can haunt people throughout their lives—even decades after an arrest for a minor offense—preventing them from getting jobs, qualifying for public housing, serving in the military or even attending their child's school field trip,” says Naomi Goldstein, PhD, a professor of psychological and brain sciences.

Goldstein has dedicated her career to improving justice policy and practice to promote more positive outcomes, specifically for youth and communities. With the inception of her Juvenile Justice Research and Reform (JJR&R) Lab over 20 years ago, she began studying and working to develop juvenile justice policies that more closely align with adolescents’ developmental capacities. The Lab works diligently to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, reform probation systems, protect youths’ rights and reduce inequalities within the system.

The Promise, an offering of United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey—a local nonprofit organization focused on fighting poverty and expanding opportunity for all—is supporting Goldstein’s latest project with what is anticipated to be a five-year grant totaling approximately $1.9 million. A broader Promise initiative will establish a series of expungement clinics to assist individuals with getting their records cleared for good, and Dr. Goldstein and her research team will evaluate the outcomes of these clinics.

“Getting a criminal justice record expunged is a complicated and expensive process, and one many people don't realize is an option,” Goldstein explains. “This initiative is designed to provide free and easy access to lawyers to help individuals who qualify for record expungement complete the process.”

Goldstein and her team’s evaluation will begin with a pilot phase focused on improving the initiative by gathering insight from the experiences of staff and clients, followed by a full-scale evaluation phase, which will focus on examining the clinics’ implementation and investigating outcomes related to the initiatives’ overarching goals.

“One of the strengths in this study is the longitudinal design, allowing for the evaluation of both short- and long-term outcomes of the expungement clinics,” states Zoe Zhang, PhD, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences and a statistician on Goldstein’s evaluation team.

Zhang notes that data collected over time can create rich information for the team to investigate. The data will focus on a variety of areas, including criminal justice, employment and wellbeing, and will come not only from the expungement clinics, but also from various public agencies that have arrest, court and employment data. The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School will also be partnering with Dr. Goldstein’s JJR&R Lab to assist with acquisition and evaluation of complex labor data.

Additionally, the JJR&R Lab is partnering with United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey and its offerings The Promise and The Knowledge Center, as well as several legal organizations and many community-based organizations to evaluate this expungement initiative. The Lab believes that a key component in making this initiative successful also involves amplifying and incorporating the voices of those with lived experience. Thus, in collaboration with the organizations staffing the expungement clinics, the Lab will create a five-member advisory board comprised of individuals with histories of justice involvement to help guide all aspects of this project from beginning to end.

Amanda NeMoyer, PhD, assistant research professor of psychological and brain sciences, another member of Goldstein’s research team and co-lead of this evaluation, is thrilled to be able to carry out this important work in partnership with so many local organizations and individuals. “These ongoing collaborations will help this project produce findings that are meaningful in a local context, while also providing necessary insight to more broadly inform conversations and policymaking related to criminal record clearing efforts,” she says.

A project like this has the potential to better the lives of people across Philadelphia. The grant provided by United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey brings Goldstein and her research team one step closer to seeing this project effect positive change.

“I am honored,” Goldstein says. “My research team will examine clinic implementation to help establish a best practice model for future expungement clinics, and we will also examine outcomes of these clinics on people's lives—on their future employment, housing stability, health care access, stress levels and a wide variety of other aspects of wellbeing that appear to be impacted by the existence of a criminal record.”

Learn more about the Juvenile Justice Research & Reform Lab here.