Expungement of Criminal Convictions: An Empirical Study

56 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2019 Last revised: 10 Jul 2019

See all articles by J.J. Prescott

J.J. Prescott

University of Michigan Law School

Sonja B. Starr

University of Michigan Law School

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 of 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 deidentified data that overcomes that problem, and we use it to carry out a comprehensive statewide study of expungement recipients and comparable non-recipients. 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 two years, wages go up by 25% versus the pre-expungement trajectory, an effect mostly driven by unemployed people finding jobs and very 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, Forthcoming; U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 19-001; U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 635. 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 Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States
617 821-1222 (Phone)

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