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New York Times - March 2019

The consequences of a run-in with the law can persist for decades after the formal sentence has been served. 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.

At least 36 states have laws allowing expungement, but they tend to be narrow in scope. Whether it’s allowed typically depends on the number of convictions and the type of crime; people usually have to wait years after completing their sentences and go through an elaborate process to have their records cleared.

In the past year there’s been an explosion of activity on this front, however. In late February, an especially ambitious bill was introduced in the California Legislature, allowing automatic expungement of misdemeanors and minor felonies after completion of a sentence. In Utah, an automatic expungement bill is awaiting the governor’s signature. These developments follow on the heels of the first major automatic expungement law, which passed in Pennsylvania last summer.

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.

For many years, debates about expungement laws have been missing something critical: hard data about their effects. But this week, we released the results of the first major empirical study of expungement laws. Michigan, where our data came from, has an expungement [law]( exemplifies the traditional nonautomatic approach.

Our 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. We 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.

This finding is especially encouraging because some skeptics have argued that expungement can’t work in the age of Google — that the criminal-record genie can’t be put back in the bottle. We have no doubt that this is sometimes true: People with expunged records may sometimes be haunted by online mug shots, for instance. Even so, many others do benefit. ...
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