The Second Chance Gap

66 Pages Posted: 4 Nov 2018 Last revised: 31 Oct 2019

See all articles by Colleen V. Chien

Colleen V. Chien

Santa Clara University - School of Law; Stanford University - Management Science & Engineering

Date Written: October 24, 2019


Over the last decade, dozens of states have enacted “second chance” reforms that increase the eligibility of individuals charged or convicted of crimes to, upon application, shorten their sentences, clean their criminal records, and/or regain the right to vote. While much fanfare has accompanied the increasing availability of “second chances,” less is known about their delivery. This study introduces the concept of the “second chance gap” - the gap between eligibility and delivery of second chance relief - and sizes it in connection with several second chance initiatives and laws. Using administrative data, I estimate that less than 10% of individuals eligible for relief under the Obama Clemency Initiative and California’s Prop 47 and 64 have received it under petition-based processes. Using a novel dataset of ~60,000 criminal records based on background checks performed in 2017 and 2018 on persons primarily seeking gig economy work, I estimate that, conservatively, 30-40% of adults with records, or 25-30M individuals, are entitled under state laws to clean their criminal records, partially or fully, but not have done so. When individuals do clear their records, studies suggest, they experience better employment and income outcomes. These findings suggest that a large number of petition-based second chances have been missed chances, due to administrative factors like low awareness, bureaucratic delays, and high cost, high-friction application processes. To close second chance gaps at scale, this Essay argues in favor of automated rather than petition-based processes. Using state legislative data, it finds that under Pennsylvania’s “fully automatic” Clean Slate model, the cost per clearance is around 5 cents as compared to costs per application (including court and defendant time) in the thousands to implement some petition-based models. Automating the administration of second chance relief can help remove the red tape, not steel bars, that stand in the way of second chances. However, in some contexts, changes in prosecutor behavior could also go far in avoiding the need for a second chance in the first place - for example, in many jurisdictions, the share of charges that do not turn into convictions exceeds 50% - yet the harm to the individual of having a low-level record, without clearance or sealing relief, may persist.

Keywords: criminal records, cost-benefit analysis, uptake analysis, computational policy

JEL Classification: K14, K4

Suggested Citation

Chien, Colleen V., The Second Chance Gap (October 24, 2019). Michigan Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Colleen V. Chien (Contact Author)

Santa Clara University - School of Law ( email )

500 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95053
United States
408-554-4534 (Phone)
408-554-4426 (Fax)

Stanford University - Management Science & Engineering ( email )

473 Via Ortega
Stanford, CA 94305-9025
United States

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