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Expungement of Criminal Convictions: An Empirical Study

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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.


*Henry King Ransom Professor of Law and Henry M. Butzel Professor of Law, respectively, and Co-Directors of the Empirical Legal Studies Center, University of Michigan Law School. The authors gratefully acknowledge the generous financial support of the National Science Foundation (Award No. SES 1023737) and the assistance of several Michigan state agencies in obtaining data: the State Police; the Workforce Development Agency; the Unemployment Insurance Agency; the Department of Technology, Management and Budget; and the State Court Administrative Office. We are also grateful to Miriam Aukerman, Jeff Morenoff, and David Harding for early advising, to conference and workshop participants at the NBER Summer Institute, Harvard Law School, the University of Michigan, the Center for American Progress, and the Michigan District Judges Association for helpful feedback, to colleagues at Michigan and elsewhere for fruitful discussions, and to all the experts whose interviews and emails are cited herein for sharing their insights. We are indebted to Margaret Love and David Schlussel for their advice and support on this project, and we thank the many research assistants who contributed during the project’s ten-year history, including Patrick Balke, Grady Bridges, Gabriella D’Agostini, David Do, Haley Dutch, Jonathan Edelman, Nathaniel Givens, Seth Kingery, Rami Krispin, Elena Malik, German Marquez Alcala, Charlotte McEwen, Chris Pryby, Chelsea Rinnig, Zehra Siddiqui, and especially Simmon Kim for his extensive efforts.

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