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Study: Erasing Criminal Records Did Not Improve Job Outcomes

Job applicants with criminal histories often strive toward expungement, as a way to can improve their chances in the job market. But, with few exceptions, a new study found that, on average, removing an existing criminal record did not improve labor-market outcomes.

The study, conducted by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, Rutgers University, the University of Chicago, the University of California Berkeley and Harvard Law School, has been released as an National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper, titled Can You Erase the Mark of a Criminal Record? Labor Market Impacts on Criminal Record Remediation. The study was funded by the New Venture Fund’s Clean Slate Initiative.

To draw their conclusions, researchers linked publicly available, individual-level criminal records from four jurisdictions – Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Bexar County, Texas – to tax records from the Internal Revenue Service.

In all but a few notable cases, researchers found, “there was little evidence that clearing a record improved labor-market outcomes for the affected individual.”

“Criminal record remediation laws have been widely enacted to improve employment opportunities for millions of people,” said co-author Andrew Garin, an associate professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College. “But our findings suggest that records harm labor-market trajectories in ways that are difficult to undo later.”

Nearly 97 million people have a criminal record in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Interstate Identification Index. Employers use that index and other available databases or services to perform background checks for open positions. Many job applications also ask about criminal history. Individuals with criminal histories have lower employment rates. Researchers for this study also found evidence of “large and persistent declines in employment around the time of both first and last charges, even those that led to non-convictions.”

To remedy that, cities and states have created ways to expunge or seal criminal records. The promise is that, if criminal records alone are preventing people from being hired, those records can be cleared for little cost. In some places, entire records can be expunged, depending on the level of the crime and the age of the record.

There is a notable exception: in some gig platforms that do background checks but don’t screen for any other employment history, record remediation policies do improve the rate of work.

Researchers suggest that criminal records or even arrests that lead to non-convictions initially create gaps in employment or limit access to opportunities. Those gaps and limits may lead to subsequent adverse job outcomes in ways that are separate from the criminal record itself.

The study’s findings suggest that larger labor-market impacts may result from policies that offer more intensive wrap-around programs that actively seek to connect people with records to stable long-term employment.







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