Record Clearing (Expungement)

The Problem: Direct evidence establishes that the existence of a criminal record, even a record devoid of convictions, constitutes an impediment to stable housing and employment. Public and private employers and landlords deny opportunities to justice-involved individuals. They deny opportunities overtly, and all of these denials are legal. Some are even compelled by law. In the digital age, criminal records are often gathered by online data aggregators through a process called scraping, which may mean that criminal records could live forever on the internet.

August 27, 2019

Record Clearing

The Research

Does expungement of a criminal record induce stabilization of housing and employment with concomitant reductions in recidivism? Should oversubscribed legal services providers dedicate their scarce resources to meeting the vast demand for assistance in obtaining an expungement under state law?

A two-site randomized control trial will assign individuals eligible for expungement under state law to different levels of service (self-help materials or attorney representation) from oversubscribed legal services providers. If, as anticipated, expungement outcomes differ based on service level, the study will employ an instrumental variables design to infer the effect of expungement on recidivism, housing stability, and employment.

Working with Kansas Legal Services in the state of Kansas and Neighborhood Legal Services, Duquesne University, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in western Pennsylvania, the study team plans to enroll up to 1,350 participants across sites. All participants will receive some type of assistance, either full representation or self-help materials, and will be offered the opportunity to participate in follow-up surveys for two years.

Automatic Record Sealing (Clean Slate)
In western Pennsylvania, the study team will also evaluate the impact of Pennsylvania’s new Clean Slate legislation, which went into effect in June 2019. The legislation affords people with criminal records that include eligible offenses the benefit of automatic criminal record sealing. This means that their criminal records will be sealed from public view without needing to take any action. Automatic sealing differs from expungement in that expungement completely removes the record but requires the person seeking it to file a claim whereas automatic sealing does not require a claim be filed but does not completely erase the record, rather removing it only from public view. Working with the same collaborating institutions as in the expungement arm, the research team hopes to enroll 300 participants in this arm of the study.

The research team will send a set of mailings to people in the study area who are eligible for Clean Slate record sealing informing them that they are eligible for the study. When a potential study participant goes through the intake process, the legal services provider will note whether or not their offense is eligible for expungement, eligible for Clean Slate, or neither. If eligible for Clean Slate, the participant will either receive a notification after intake in addition to the government notification or will receive no additional notification. The data collection process will be the same as for the expungement arm of the study.

What We’ll Learn
There is no clear evidence of the effect of record-clearing on recidivism. Further, there are no studies based in randomized field operations that show the effectiveness of record-clearing on housing stability outcomes. This study will show those effects. In addition to demonstrating the direct effects of expungement, having an interstate multi-site study will allow for a clearer picture of the impact of expungement-related policies, which can vary significantly across jurisdictions. The Clean Slate arm of the study will add a valuable field operation component to the growing literature and other current research projects that are evaluating the impact of Clean Slate legislation in Pennsylvania.

The Research Team

Jim Greiner, Faculty Director, Access to Justice Lab; Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
Renee Danser, Associate Director of Research and Strategic Partnerships, Access to Justice Lab
Pat Chew, University of Pittsburgh School of Law
Pamela Dalton-Arlotti, Neighborhood Legal Services
Marilyn Harp, Kansas Legal Services
Rochelle McCain, University of Pittsburgh School of Law
Kate Norton, Duquesne University
Robert Racunas, Neighborhood Legal Services