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.

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