Clean Slate Record Sealing and Expungement


Christi Smith
Resident Senior Fellow, Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties
Jillian Snider
Policy Director, Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties

Key Points

Clean slate is a policy model that would automatically seal criminal records for qualified candidates.

Sealed records make it easier for individuals to obtain the basic education, employment and housing resources they need to remain law-abiding.

Detractors fear such legislation puts employers, landlords and the general community unnecessarily at risk.

Research supports the efficacy of clean slate legislation in bolstering individual opportunities and local and national economies with no additional threat to public safety.

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Five decades of “get tough on crime” policies penalizing drug possession, use, abuse, dependence and distribution have resulted in a 500 percent increase in our carceral populations.

Since the War on Drugs, exponentially more people were arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison, often for far longer sentence lengths. Approximately half of the federal prison population is serving time for a drug offense, though most are not major players in the drug trade and most have no prior violent convictions.

After a sentence has been served and all legal responsibilities have been satisfied, individuals continue to face barriers to successful reentry that prevent them from ever fully participating in society as a free citizen. One of every three Americans currently has a criminal record that inhibits their ability to secure and maintain employment that is sufficient to provide the stable housing and income required to support themselves and their dependents.

While some states provide record sealing and expungement mechanisms, the process is complex and costly, resulting in only a fraction of those eligible pursuing this critical avenue to restoring access to resources needed for basic human survival.

However, a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers led by Reps. Lisa Blunt-Rochester (D-Del.) and Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) along with Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) have introduced federal legislation—the Clean Slate Act, H.R. 2864 and S. 1380—which would provide an avenue for automatic federal record sealing and expungement for certain offenses, necessarily building on the existing petition and state-based alternatives.

Clean slate record sealing and expungement, or “clean slate,” offers people a second chance by sealing their criminal records after they have been crime-free for a certain number of years. Research demonstrates the efficacy of the policy in improving employment opportunities and increased wage earnings while preserving public safety. After a certain period of time, individuals with expunged records are no more likely to commit crime compared to the general population and they have extremely low rates of reoffending.

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