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Getting Rid of the ‘X’

by Jayson Hawkins

Doing time has never been easy, yet the greatest challenges many prisoners face often come after their release. Basic concerns like securing a job, housing, and credit can be recurring nightmares for ex-convicts. 

The recent push to “Ban the Box” — get rid of questions about criminal history on job applications — has made some progress, but expunging one’s conviction once the sentence has been served could have a much bigger impact on those seeking to reintegrate into society. 

Some form of expungement already exists in 36 states, but in most, it is only available in a limited number of cases. Even among those who do qualify, however, few attempt to have their criminal records sealed because of the difficulty of the process.

A 2019 University of Michigan study found that while most applications for expungement in that state were granted, fewer than 10 percent of those who qualified applied for it within five years of eligibility.

Considering the huge upside to getting the “X” off one’s back, what’s stopping them? 

The Michigan study concluded that the first factor is a lack of information. People either don’t know expungement is a possibility or, if they do, how to pursue it. The second factor is cost. Most can’t afford to hire a lawyer to guide them through the process, and the required court fees total around $100. Time also plays a part, as the process can stretch out for months and involve missing work to make appearances at police stations and courthouses. Finally, those who have been entangled in the web of the criminal justice system tend to avoid any institutions associated with it, even for a chance at freeing themselves from it. “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,” the authors of the study noted. 

And now for the good news: Recent legislation could tear down those barriers for some. In California, a proposed law would grant automatic expungement to those with minor felonies and misdemeanors. A similar bill would be enacted in Utah if the governor signs it. Both these reforms follow a Pennsylvania automatic expungement law that passed last year. 

After decades of “tough on crime” politics, a consensus has emerged that the current system does not work. Sky-high incarceration rates have condemned an ever-expanding portion of the American population to years behind bars and reduced them to second-class citizens when released; still, reforms must take into account the security of society at large.

The Michigan study found that expungement aids both sides. Those who had their records sealed earn over 20 percent more on average within a year, due mostly to those who were unemployed getting hired and the underemployed finding better jobs. Society benefits from lower recidivism rates among those who receive expungements, as well as lower crime rates among them than the general adult population of the state. 

The study concludes that “expungement is a powerful tool for improving outcomes for people with records, without risk (and possibly with benefits) to public safety. But lawmakers need to make it much easier for people to actually use that tool and get a fresh start to life.” 



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