Dear Chairman Nadler, Ranking Member Jordan and Members of the Committee,

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the beneficial provisions regarding the expungement of criminal records for first-time, low-level, nonviolent, simple-possession offenders after the successful completion of court-imposed probation. My name is Christi M. Smith; I am a former adult probation and parole officer, and I currently conduct research in the area of probation, parole/reentry and community corrections for the R Street Institute (R Street). R Street is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization. Our mission is to engage in policy research and outreach to promote free markets and limited, effective government in many areas, including criminal justice reform, and that is why we are in support of H.R. 1924, the Kenneth P. Thompson Begin Again Act.

The consequence of having a criminal record, no matter how minor or how far distanced from an opportunity that is being pursued, forever compromises an individual’s ability to secure the most basic resources needed for their stability and that of their dependents. Technology and near-immediate access to digital criminal records nullifies any chance of accessing educational, vocational and housing opportunities long after time has been served and law-violating behavior has been reformed. Absent access to conventional resources and ostracized from legitimate opportunities, first-time offenders may find themselves compelled to return to their former social groups, maladaptive coping skills and criminal ways.

Individuals may also be less likely to comply with probation supervision if they learn that the completion of their term does not equate to a new chance at life even after following the arduous tasks of reporting as directed, completing treatment and being subjected to frequent drug urinalysis testing. We at R Street commend the Judiciary Committee for examining one of the most pressing topics today.

A recent empirical study of the impacts of a criminal record concluded that a record represents the civil death of the convicted and that policies facilitating the automatic expungement of that record are perhaps the most important policy levers in improving reentry outcomes. [1] To that end, the vast majority of our nation’s states, the federal government and the District of Columbia have proposed, are proposing or have passed legislation addressing this problem. [2] The concerns of the harmful impact of a criminal record and the ease with which such information is accessed have also contributed to support for expungement from the general public. [3]

While it is difficult to study the impact of expungement, owing in part to the fact that records are not publicly available, a statewide study in Michigan found that the rate of re-offense was exceedingly low compared to the general-offender population. Only 7.1 percent of all expunged persons were rearrested within five years, 2.6 percent of whom were rearrested for a violent offense, and reconviction rates were even lower, with only 4.2 percent of the expunged population being convicted—.06 percent of whom were convicted for a new violent offense. [4] While this cannot be solely attributed to the expungement of the previous record, the results are consistent with other desistance research that suggests that attachment to prosocial entities like school, work and home and the adoption of a new, law-abiding identity are crucial to the continued success of the individual. [5] To this end, the expungement of the criminal record—particularly for first-time, nonviolent individuals—is an essential first step in granting access to the social resources and positive self-image individuals need to remain law-abiding.

Once a person has learned from their mistake(s), served their punishment and repaid their debt to society, it becomes unnecessary and counterproductive to continue to punish them.

Again, we thank you for your consideration of this crucial issue, and we stand ready to assist or answer any questions you may have.

Respectfully submitted,

Christi M. Smith, PhD
Resident Senior Fellow
Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Policy
R Street Institute
[email protected]

[1] J.J. Prescott and Sonja B. Starr, “Expungement of Criminal Convictions: An Empirical Study,” Harvard Law Review 133:8 (2020), pp. 2460-2555.  https://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3167&context=articles.

[2] Ibid., p. 2463.

[3] Alexander L. Burton et al., “Beyond the eternal criminal record: Public support for expungement,” Criminology & Public Policy 20 (2021), pp. 123-151. https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9133.12531.

[4] Prescott and Starr, p. 2466. https://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3167&context=articles.

[5] Lila Kazemian, Pathways to Desistance From Crime Among Juveniles and Adults: Applications to Criminal Justice Policy and Practice, National Institute of Justice, November 2021. https://www.cmcainternational.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Pathways-to-Desistance-of-crime.pdf.