Expungement of Criminal Convictions: An Empirical Study

3/20/2019 feature story

PSC Researchers JJ Prescott and Sonja Starr find that formerly incarcerated people who got their records expunged were more likely to stay out of trouble and get steadier, higher-paying jobs than those who didn't. They were able to obtain access to deidentified data and use it to carry out a comprehensive statewide study of expungement recipients and comparable non-recipients. People with records face major barriers to employment, housing and education, effectively condemning them to second-class citizenship. In recent years, criminal justice reform efforts have increasingly focused on finding policy tools that can lower these barriers. The most powerful potential lever is the expungement of criminal convictions, which seals them from public view, removes them from databases, and neutralizes most of their legal effects. Reflecting the changing politics surrounding criminal justice, the movement for these reforms has attracted a bipartisan coalition, creating a real possibility that more states around the country could pass similar laws. Still, such efforts must overcome the primary objection of critics: that employers, landlords and others have a public safety interest in knowing the criminal records of those they interact with. The analysis produced some good news and some bad news - but all of the findings strongly support efforts to expand the availability of expungement. The good news is that people who get expungements tend to do very well. The study found that within a year, on average, their wages go up by more than 20 percent, after controlling for their employment history and changes in the Michigan economy. This gain is mostly driven by unemployed people finding work and minimally employed people finding steadier positions. The bad news: Hardly anyone gets expungements. The low rate of applications for expungement is consistent with broader findings about the difficulties that poor and middle-class Americans face in dealing with the legal system. When the state makes it too hard or costly for citizens to exercise a right or opportunity, it's not that different from denying that right or opportunity. Most people won't be able to jump through all those hoops. The policy upshot of the research is clear: obtaining an expungement should be made as simple as possible.

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J.J. Prescott
Sonja B. Starr

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