Vol. 116 Northwestern University Law Review Online, 2021
20 Pages Posted: 3 Aug 2021
Date Written: July 8, 2021
Expungement law has made great strides over the past two decades, with state-level reforms broadening the types of criminal records eligible for expungement. Further, expungement has been extended beyond arrestees to those who have been convicted, thereby promising to alleviate some of the burdens of reentry. Nevertheless, expungement remedies only touch officially held information or public data possessed by different branches of government. This means that private actors, if they possess the information, are beyond the reach of expungement law. Such actors, whether individuals, background check companies, newspapers, or other firms, enjoy the ability to continue to hold and use such information. This results in a whack-a-mole problem for the successful expungement petitioner who has achieved the relief that the state allows, only to see its efficacy thwarted by private activity with the same information. Recently, one private actor, newspapers, has begun to set up processes that resemble formal expungement. Newspaper editors have responded to the limits of formal expungement by constructing their own procedures for evaluating whether to erase, seal, or alter information that is damaging to the reputation of those who have encountered the criminal justice system. This development has occurred on the heels of the right to be forgotten movement in Europe, which has gained little traction in the United States. This Essay contextualizes the phenomenon of newspaper expungement, situating it within a larger legal backdrop, before describing the stated activities and aspirations of some of the newspapers themselves. It concludes by charting how such practices relate to broader critiques and goals of criminal justice reform.
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