Expungement of Criminal Convictions: An Empirical Study

96 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2019 Last revised: 12 Jun 2020

See all articles by J.J. Prescott

J.J. Prescott

University of Michigan Law School

Sonja B. Starr

University of Chicago

Date Written: March 16, 2019


Laws permitting the expungement of criminal convictions are a key component of modern criminal justice reform efforts and have been the subject of a recent upsurge in legislative activity. This debate has been almost entirely devoid of evidence about the laws’ effects, in part because the necessary data (such as sealed records themselves) have been unavailable. We were able to obtain access to de-identified data that overcome that problem, and we use it to carry out a comprehensive statewide study of expungement recipients and comparable nonrecipients in Michigan. We offer three key sets of empirical findings. First, among those legally eligible for expungement, just 6.5% obtain it within five years of eligibility. Drawing on patterns in our data as well as interviews with expungement lawyers, we point to reasons for this serious “uptake gap.” Second, those who do obtain expungement have extremely low subsequent crime rates, comparing favorably to the general population — a finding that defuses a common public-safety objection to expungement laws. Third, those who obtain expungement experience a sharp upturn in their wage and employment trajectories; on average, within one year, wages go up by over 22% versus the pre-expungement trajectory, an effect mostly driven by unemployed people finding jobs and minimally employed people finding steadier or higher-paying work.

Keywords: reentry, expungement, criminal records, recidivism, employment, wages

JEL Classification: K14, K41,J38, J68, J71

Suggested Citation

Prescott, J.J. and Starr, Sonja B., Expungement of Criminal Convictions: An Empirical Study (March 16, 2019). Harvard Law Review, Vol. 133, No. 8, pp.2460-555 (June 2020), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3353620 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3353620

J.J. Prescott

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

3170 South Hall
701 S. State St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
United States
734-763-2326 (Phone)

Sonja B. Starr (Contact Author)

University of Chicago ( email )

1111 E 60th St
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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