Sealing or clearing a criminal record after a wrongful conviction is a tangled and expensive process, advocates and former prisoners say. It can take years of appeals to courts and pleas to governors to wipe the slate clean. Even then, many felony convictions remain on federal databases and pop up during background checks or at traffic stops, says the New York Times. Aside from the practical challenges — a criminal record can impede big things like finding housing and employment, and smaller things like getting a hunting license — people who have been exonerated feel unfairly marked, branded with a scarlet letter from a justice system that should not have locked them up in the first place.
“It was destroying my life,” said Sabrina Butler, who was sentenced to die in Mississippi for the 1989 death of her infant son, then exonerated in 1995. “It's always there.” Clearing a criminal record can take years and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees, and differs widely state to state. Many require that defendants return to court to prove their innocence, a higher hurdle than showing that charges were dismissed or a conviction was overturned. In some states, a governor's pardon is needed. It can be a complex process, which advocates say is made even more difficult by a lack of support services for the exonerated. With hundreds of men and women now freed from prison by exculpatory DNA tests or successful appeals by advocacy organizations, more states are grappling with questions of what they owe the wrongfully convicted, and how to prevent former prisoners from slipping into poverty or back to prison.