Sealing Criminal Records Benefits Us All

About 1 in 3 adults have a criminal record. Each year as a result, millions of people are barred from housing, jobs and public benefits—condemning families to a lifetime of economic hardship.

In These Times Editors

Illustration by Terry Laban

clean • slate

noun

1. The push to automatically seal certain criminal records.

Why should people be able to hide” their criminal records?

About 70 million people — 1 in 3 adults — have some kind of criminal record; background checks often turn up arrests, for example, even if no charges were ever filed. Nine in 10 employers weigh that past in their hiring decisions.

And the collateral consequences go far beyond employment. Criminal records can disqualify people from housing, professional licensing and public benefits.

In short, a record can sentence an individual — and their family — to lifelong economic hardship.

Aren’t there already ways to seal criminal records, though?

Most states have laws allowing people to clear their records, but bureaucratic barriers and fees mean that many people never manage to do it. In Michigan, for example, a $50 application fee is just the first in a series of hurdles; fewer than 7% of eligible Michiganders succeed, according to a 2020 study.

But those who did saw their wages go up by an average of more than 22% within a year.

How would automatic sealing” work?

Pennsylvania became the first state to enact a clean slate” law in 2018. Arrest records are sealed immediately from the public — including from employers and landlords — and convictions for nonviolent misdemeanors are sealed after 10 years for people without further convictions.

The process makes use of digitized court records and has resulted in more than 30 million cases being sealed since it took effect. An updated version of the law, passed in 2020, makes residents eligible for automatic sealing even if they have unpaid court fees.

"The states are really all over the map on this stuff, and they’re all reinventing the wheel. It’s getting harder for state legislatures to pick out a single approach. We have to start looking at this in a more systematic way." —Margaret Love, Executive Director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center

Could this reform be enacted nationwide?

Since April 2021, at least 11 states have enacted automatic record-expungement legislation. The laws vary by state, but most advocates agree that unpaid court debts shouldn’t be a barrier.

But to make this kind of reform a reality, states must first take another step: digitizing their court records to make automatic sealing possible. The bipartisan Fresh Start Act of 2021, introduced in both houses of Congress in the past year, would allocate $50 million annually for the next five years to help states do it — which would mark an important, if small, step in criminal justice reform.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

The War on Protest Cover
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.