Expunging Criminal Records Easier; Cost, Ignorance Are Obstacles

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An estimated 70 million people in the U.S. have a criminal arrest or conviction record. Even a low-level misdemeanor conviction on one’s record can stand in the way of getting a job. Many states are taking steps to remove stumbling blocks, including laws to expunge the records of many past crimes when people have served their sentences, paid their fines and continued to stay out of trouble, Stateline reports.

Between 2009 and 2014, 31 states passed laws on expungement, many of which expanded the number of crimes that can be removed from someone’s record, says the Vera Institute of Justice.  Many laws allow a record to be expunged or destroyed. Others seal or shield a person’s record from the public, making them accessible only to law enforcement.

In analyzing criminal cases in Baltimore last year, Maryland lawyer and software programmer Matthew Stubenberg found 23,386 instances in which people convicted of crimes could have had their records expunged. He found that people had petitioned to clear their records in fewer than a third of the cases. One reason is ignorance of remedies that the laws allow, and another reason is the cost.

In Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee, for example, filing for expungement of a criminal record costs around $500. “A lot of people might be eligible [for an expungement], but they might not know,” said Madeline Neighly of the Council of State Governments Justice Center. “They might not have access to the paperwork or someone to walk them through the process. They usually need civil legal aid. And in some cases it’s actually quite expensive to file for expungement.”

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