The Second Chance Gap

43 Pages Posted: 4 Nov 2018 Last revised: 15 Nov 2018

See all articles by Colleen V. Chien

Colleen V. Chien

Santa Clara University - School of Law; Stanford Computational Policy Lab

Date Written: September 15, 2018


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 or downgrade their past convictions, 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 uptake. This study introduces the concept of the “second chance gap” - the gap between eligibility and delivery of certain forms of second chance relief, and sizes it in connection with several initiatives. It documents "uptake gaps" in association with Presidential Clemency and Ca reclassification to be large, with 90% of the eligible population not receiving their second chance. Applying laws from alll 50 states to a random sample of records associated with ~15,000 adults seeking on-demand jobs in the past 20 months , I estimate that 40-50% or more of Americans with criminal (court) records could clean their record on the basis of one or more state clearance criteria, for a conservative estimate of 25-30M of Americans who could, but have not, partially or fully cleared their criminal records under existing law. These findings suggest that in many cases, the majority of second chances have been missed chances, due to administrative factors like low awareness and high-cost, high-friction application processes and backlog. To close the second chance gaps and unlock opportunities for individuals with criminal histories, this Essay argues, policymakers should consider automating second chances, and in the process burden-shifting, centralizaing, and ensuing consistency in the implementation of second chances. Ensuring that the design and administration of second chance laws reflect their intent can help remove the red tape, not steel bars, that stand in the way of second chances.

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

JEL Classification: K14, K4

Suggested Citation

Chien, Colleen V., The Second Chance Gap (September 15, 2018). Santa Clara Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper. 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 Computational Policy Lab ( email )

473 Via Ortega
Stanford, CA 94305-9025
United States

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