Introduction:

One in three Americans have some type of criminal record. Even a minor criminal record can present lifetime barriers to obtaining jobs, housing, and education, and put other opportunities out of reach. The barriers associated with a record can have ripple effects for generations: Nearly half of U.S. children now have at least one parent with a criminal record, with negative consequences for children’s cognitive development, school performance, and even employment outcomes in adulthood.

As a result, most states allow people to petition for expungement or sealing of at least certain types of records. Record-clearing can be life-changing: Preliminary research from the University of Michigan finds that a year after a record is cleared, people are 11 percent more likely to be employed and are earning 22 percent higher wages.

Unfortunately, under the cumbersome and complicated petition-based system used in most states, only a tiny fraction of people eligible for expungement or sealing ever obtain the relief they need. Navigating the complex record-clearing process can prove extremely challenging, often requiring expensive legal assistance and court fees—making it impossible for millions to move on with their lives.

Fortunately, policy known as “clean slate” offers a solution: automatic record clearing once someone remains crime-free for a set period of time. This is where you come in. Momentum for these policies are growing across the country – and using these communications tools, you can help urge lawmakers in your state to give people a clean slate.

This toolkit includes the following ways to join the campaign and take action:


Talking points

For millions of Americans, a criminal record is a life sentence to poverty

  • Following decades of overcriminalization, between 70 million and 100 million Americans—1 in 3—now have some type of criminal record.
  • But in the digital era, with nearly 9 in 10 employers, 4 in 5 landlords, and 3 in 5 colleges now using background checks, any record—no matter how old or minor—can put employment, housing, education, and other basics permanently out of reach.
  • As the use of background checks has grown, so has the number of laws and restrictions limiting access to jobs, occupational licensing, credit, housing, education, and other basics. People with records potentially face some 50,000 such restrictions.
  • A criminal record reduces a job seeker’s chance of getting a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent.[8. Devah Pager, Bruce Western, and Naomi Sugie, “Sequencing Disadvantage: Barriers to Employment Facing Young Black and White Men with Criminal Records,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 623 (1) (2009): 195–213. ]
  • Formerly incarcerated people are nearly 10 times more likely than the general public to experience homelessness.[9. Lucius Couloute, “Nowhere to Go: Homelessness among formerly incarcerated people” (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2018), available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/housing.html. ]
  • If not for mass incarceration and the barriers associated with having a criminal record, the nation’s poverty rate would have dropped by 20 percent between 1980 and 2004.[10. Robert H. DeFina and Lance Hannon, “The Impact of Mass Incarceration on Poverty,” Crime and Delinquency 59 (4) (2013). ]

Criminal records are a family sentence

  • Nearly half of American children now have at least one parent with a criminal record.
  • The barriers associated with a parent’s record can result in long-lasting family economic instability and severely limit a child’s life chances, hampering children’s:
    • Cognitive development
    • School performance
    • Educational attainment
    • Employment and earnings in adulthood

Enabling people with records to earn a clean slate is a win-win for families, communities, and the economy as a whole

  • People with criminal records who have remained crime-free for four to seven years are no more likely than the general population to commit a new crime.
  • A clean slate helps people move on with their lives and get back to work. Research from the University of Michigan finds that people are 11 percent more likely to be employed and are earning 22 percent higher wages one year after a record has been cleared.
  • Millions of justice-involved people are eligible to have their records cleared through expungement or sealing. But the vast majority don’t ever get relief, because they can’t afford a lawyer, pay the court fees, or figure out how to navigate the complex court petition process. Many are not even aware it’s an option.
  • Clean slate uses technology to streamline the existing record-clearing process so more people with records can get the second chances they’ve earned. Clean slate automatically seals or expunges qualifying records for people who remain crime-free for a set period of time, taking the burden of filing a court petition off the individual and lessening the strain on the courts.
  • Enabling people with records to earn a clean slate will smooth the path to re-entry, reducing the likelihood of recidivism. That means safer communities, fewer people behind bars, and fewer taxpayer dollars wasted on unnecessary incarceration.
  • Clean slate policies will help more justice-involved people get back to work, benefiting the entire national economy, which loses as much as $87 billion in gross domestic product every year simply by shutting workers with criminal records out of the labor market.[11. Cherrie Bucknor and Alan Barber, “The Price We Pay: Economic Costs of Barriers to Employment for Former Prisoners and People Convicted of Felonies” (Washington: Center for Economic Policy and Research, 2016), available at http://cepr.net/images/stories/reports/employment-prisoners-felonies-2016-06.pdf. ]

Clean slate is something everyone can agree on, with overwhelming support across the political spectrum

  • Clean slate has overwhelming support on both sides of the aisle. Seventy percent of Americans support clean slate policies—including 66 percent of Republicans and 75 percent of Democrats.[12. Halpin and Agne, “Voters Across Party Lines Support Clean Slate Legislation.”]
Fast facts

Following decades of overcriminalization, between 70 million and 100 million Americans—1 in 3—now have some type of criminal record

Nearly 9 in 10 of employers, 4 in 5 landlords, and 3 in 5 colleges use background checks to screen applicants.

People with criminal records are half as likely as other jobseekers to get a callback from an employer.

Recidivism research shows that people with criminal records who have remained crime-free for 4 to 7 years are no more likely than the general population to commit a new crime.

Nearly half of all U.S. children now have at least one parent with a criminal record. The barriers associated with parents’ records have negative consequences for children’s cognitive development, school performance, and employment outcomes in adulthood.

Shutting people out of the labor market due to criminal records costs the U.S. economy an estimated $87 billion per year in lost GDP.

Recent University of Michigan research shows that on average, the wages of people who receive expungements increase by more than 20 percent one year after a record has been cleared.

While most states allow for expungement, sealing, or other types of record-clearing, research from the University of Michigan finds that, in a petition-based record-clearance system, just 6.5 percent of eligible people successfully get their records cleared.

Clean Slate policies have broad bipartisan support. 70 percent of Americans support clean slate policies—including 66 percent of Republicans and 75 percent of Democrats.

Frequently asked questions
What is clean slate?

The clean slate policy model empowers states to automatically seal or expunge qualifying criminal records for people who remain crime-free for a set period of time. Clean slate helps people get the second chance they’ve earned by streamlining petition-based record-clearing—a costly and time-intensive process that prevents the vast majority of eligible people from ever obtaining needed relief.

What happens once a record is sealed or expunged?

A criminal record that has been sealed or expunged will no longer show up on background checks used by nearly 9 in 10 of employers, 4 in 5 landlords, and 3 in 5 colleges. Terminology often differs from state to state, but expunged records are generally destroyed, and records that have been sealed remain visible to law enforcement agencies, though hidden from public view. Record-clearing can be life-changing, removing barriers to employment, housing, education, and more, so people can move on with their lives. Research from the University of Michigan, for example, finds that people are 11 percent more likely to be employed and are earning 22 percent higher wages one year after a record is cleared.

Who needs a clean slate—and why?

Nationwide, between 70 million and 100 million Americans—1 in 3—have some kind of criminal record. Any record—even a decades-old misdemeanor or an arrest that never led to conviction—can make it nearly impossible to get into college, find a job, or secure a place to live. This does not hurt only people with records, but children and families as well. Nearly half of American children now have at least one parent with a criminal record, which can severely limit a child’s life chances, hampering cognitive development, school performance, and even employment and earnings in adulthood. Enabling justice-involved individuals to earn a clean slate will make it possible to move on with their lives, provide for their families, and have a fair shot at the second chance they have earned.

Why do we need automatic record-clearing? What’s wrong with the current system?

States generally allow for certain criminal records to be sealed or expunged, but under the current petition-based system, only a tiny fraction of eligible individuals ever successfully get their records cleared. Many do not even know it’s an option. And nearly all eligible individuals have to proactively file a petition in court—a process that can be both expensive and time-intensive. Petitioners generally have to hire a lawyer and take time off work to appear in court, often racking up thousands of dollars in legal bills and court costs. And the courts have to process each petition one by one, straining valuable judicial resources.

Clean slate streamlines the process with the help of technology, making record-clearing automatic once someone has remained crime-free for a set period of time. Through clean slate, states automatically seal or expunge eligible records by computer query, meaning that everyone who qualifies for record-clearing gets the clean slate they’ve earned—regardless of whether they can afford a lawyer and expensive court fees and without having to navigate a complex court process.

Where is clean slate happening?

In June 2018, Pennsylvania became the first state in the nation to enact clean slate legislation, through the bipartisan Clean Slate Act. Now, clean slate is catching on in states across the country, including Michigan, Colorado, South Carolina, and more.[14. Center for American Progress, “Removing Barriers to Economic Opportunity for Americans with Criminal Records Is Focus of New Multistate Initiative by CAP, NELP, and CLS,” Press release, September 12, 2017, available at https://www.americanprogress.org/press/release/2017/09/12/437592/release-removing-barriers-economic-opportunity-americans-criminal-records-focus-new-multistate-initiative-cap-nelp-cls/. ] And bipartisan clean slate legislation to automatically clear certain federal records was introduced in Congress in August 2018.[15. Office of Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, “Blunt Rochester, Blum Introduce Bipartisan, First-in-the-Nation Federal Second Chance Legislation,” Press release, August 30, 2018, available at https://bluntrochester.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=162. ]

Who supports clean slate?

At a time when it seems Americans can’t agree on anything, clean slate is an area of rare bipartisan agreement, earning widespread support across the political spectrum, including 75 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans. Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Act was truly the product of a strange bedfellows coalition, including a Republican-controlled Legislature, a Democratic governor, advocates on the left and the right, as well as directly affected communities, business, law enforcement, and even the Philadelphia Eagles. And now, national leaders from a range of diverse perspectives—from the Center for American Progress to Koch Industries—are coming together to support clean slate policies.[16. See www.cleanslatecampaign.org for a full list of supporting organizations. ]

Who benefits from clean slate?

Clean slate is a win-win for all of us:

  • Justice-involved individuals and their families will benefit, as they are able to earn a decent living, obtain stable housing, and access the education and training they need to get ahead.
  • The criminal justice system will not be burdened with the transactional costs of record-clearing petitions, reducing a burdensome workload for the country’s overtaxed courts.
  • States will save taxpayer dollars as a result of reduced incarceration as the path to re-entry is smoothed.
  • The economy will benefit as qualified job seekers are able to re-enter the labor force.
  • Communities will be safer due to lower recidivism rates as more justice-involved people are able to move on with their lives and provide for their families.

Sample letters to the editor

Letter from a person with a record

To the editor:

I have [#] children, [OPTIONAL: INSERT FIRST NAMES AND AGES], and I work as a [INSERT YOUR OCCUPATION, IF WORKING], but I’ve lost count of how many doors have been shut in my face because of a criminal record from [X] years ago. [SPECIFY IN ONE TO TWO SENTENCES WHAT YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED]. It shouldn’t be this hard to start over. And a mistake from the past shouldn’t define you for the rest of your life. The Clean Slate Act would give [INSERT NAME FOR STATE RESIDENTS, FOR EXAMPLE, PENNSYLVANIANS] like me with minor criminal records a fair shot at finding a decent job, providing for our families, and becoming productive members of our communities. A criminal record shouldn’t be a life sentence to poverty. Studies have found that people with criminal records who have stayed crime-free for four to seven years are no more likely to commit a crime in the future than anyone else. It’s time [INSERT YOUR STATE] allowed me and others who’ve paid our debt to society to earn the clean slate we deserve.

Letter from an employer or business

To the editor:

As a member of the [INSERT YOUR STATE] business community, I can tell you that the Clean Slate Act would be a game-changer for [INSERT YOUR STATE]’s workers and our local economy. Like many employers in the area, I’m facing a shortage of skilled workers, which gets worse by the day. By helping workers with criminal records earn a clean slate once they’ve remained crime-free, qualified job seekers will be able to get back to work. Employment losses due to criminal records cost our country up to $87 billion in lost gross domestic product annually. By helping our neighbors become productive members of our community, we have the chance to supercharge [INSERT YOUR STATE]’s economic growth, as people currently held back by a record are able to get off the sidelines and back to work. Enabling people to find work also reduces the likelihood that they will commit another crime. That means safer communities, fewer people behind bars, and fewer taxpayer dollars wasted on unnecessary incarceration. I urge [INSERT YOUR STATE] to support the Clean Slate Act to better our state for everyone.

Letter from a service provider 

To the editor:

As a [TYPE OF SERVICE PROVIDER], I spend my days helping people with criminal records seeking to rebuild their lives. I can tell you from firsthand experience that even a minor, decades-old record can be a life sentence to poverty—standing in the way of employment, housing, and basically everything a person needs to get back on their feet. This makes zero sense. When people are able to find a decent job and stable housing, they’re able to move on with their lives, provide for their families, and become productive members of society. Research has found that a year after getting a record cleared, people are 11 percent more likely to have a job and are earning wages that are more than 20 percent higher. On the flip side, when people don’t get a second chance, they end up back behind bars. That’s why I support the Clean Slate Act. We should be making sure justice-involved individuals have a meaningful shot at a second chance—instead of setting them up for failure.

Sample social media posts and graphics
Sample graphics can be found here

Tweets

Use these sample tweets to join the conversation about #CleanSlate. Consider pairing your tweets with social media graphics or linking to www.cleanslatecampaign.org.

Even a minor brush with the law can create a lifetime of barriers to opportunity. It’s time to give people with criminal records a #CleanSlate.

A criminal record can be a life sentence to joblessness. #CleanSlate policies help people move on with their lives and get back to work once they’ve paid their debt to society.

Criminal records can be a family sentence. Giving parents a #CleanSlate helps kids and families succeed, too.

With a #CleanSlate people with criminal records can get back to work.  That’s a win for the entire national economy.

Only a tiny fraction of eligible people ever get their criminal records cleared. Many don’t know they’re eligible, can’t afford a lawyer, or get lost in red tape. A new bipartisan idea called #CleanSlate could change this.

A criminal record shouldn’t haunt someone forever. It’s time we give people the #CleanSlate they deserve once they remain crime-free.

It’s time to rethink the way we treat criminal records. Automated record-clearing policies would give millions of people the #CleanSlate they deserve.

Any criminal record—even an arrest that never led to conviction—can stand in the way of employment. It’s time to give people a #CleanSlate so they can get back to work.

A criminal record shouldn’t follow you for life. That’s why states are taking action to help people with records get a #CleanSlate.

People with criminal records who have paid their debt to society deserve a #CleanSlate so they can move on with their lives, get back to work, and provide for their families.

At a time when it seems Americans don’t agree on anything, #CleanSlate is something we can all support.

After decades of mass incarceration and overcriminalization, 1 in 3 Americans now has some type of criminal record. It’s time to give people a #CleanSlate.