Hands in handcuffs

Imagine getting over one of the hardest challenges of your life. You are ready to start a brand-new chapter of your life. You can picture the new home you want, plans to get your degree, or your dream job just in reach, but all of a sudden you are told you cannot have any of it, all because of one mistake from your past. 

Whether from an OVI, an assault charge, or even something as small as shoplifting, nearly 100 million Americans have a criminal record. This “X on their back” follows them around the rest of their life. That is unless they receive a second chance in the form of expungement or record erasing. 

Expungement occurs when the government erases, destroys, or seals from view the history of someone’s criminal record. The first step of the process starts with the individual petitioning the court where they were convicted. From there, a background check is performed, and the prosecutor will review it. A hearing is then scheduled where the judge will either grant or deny the request. The laws of each state vary on the eligibility and types of expungement. In the state of Ohio, not all offenses are eligible, but most misdemeanors, felonies, and juvenile offenses are. 

Alexander Burton and his colleagues published their findings in an issue of Criminology and Public Policy. They found based on their poll of the American public, 75 percent of respondents believe that the criminal record should only be seen by the government, law enforcement, and in some cases employers. Nearly 40 percent of respondents believed that the record should be placed on the internet for all to see. Their answer came down to risk factors. 

The respondents weighed the risk the offender posed to society. If they fear, they will cause danger or harm they do not support expungement, and if they are not a danger they support it. It is clear why they believe this. The International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology published its findings on public support for restoring rights in 2021. Similar reasoning became clear, the nature of the crime is important to look at. Overall, the most common concern from the public seems to be how it would affect them or their family. 

Other benefits or driving factors that increase support for expungement include the boost it gives the economy. Murat Mungan from George Mason University explains how expungement can reduce crime and save money. Those with sealed records are eligible to hold jobs and have fewer chances of reentering the system. With fewer individuals incarcerated and more working, the economy is bound to see changes for the better. 

The opportunity for expungement is only available in select states. The Restoration of Rights Project, a group that is partnered with lawyers, defenders, attorneys, and other projects, completed a survey of all 50 states in 2024. They published their findings in a database available to everyone. It explains each state and the degree to which they offer expungement and record sealing. 

Even when expungement is a possibility, the report showed how gaining approval depended on the seriousness of the offense. This varies on a state-by-state basis, for example, the state of Ohio offers a broad range of felony and misdemeanor relief. This means a longer list of types of felony convictions and misdemeanors are eligible for expungement. Unlike a state such as Kentucky where a very limited range of offenses are eligible. In sum, each state has the authority of what they choose to pardon and what remains. 

A movement made up of activists, formerly incarcerated individuals, their loved ones, and other various political actors has been building. Their attempts to call attention to this matter have been slow, as most people are simply unaware of the cause. If it does not directly affect someone most often, they do not care and show little interest in supporting the cause, but times are changing. 

New York is one of the areas this movement has gained the most traction. Thanks to efforts by various activists, in 2023 the New York State Senate and Assembly passed the Clean Slate Act. The new law automatically clears a person’s conviction record so they can have access to jobs and housing. 

Ten other states have passed similar legislation in the past 5 years. Pennsylvania passed a Clean Slate Law similar to New York’s allowing automatic record sealing, which is the automatic clearing of records based upon eligibility, for certain convictions in 2023. The state of Oregon enacted a bill that was passed in 2021, to include dismissals and acquittals in expungement. They have also eliminated filing fees and shortened wait periods. 

The state of Ohio as of 2023, has updated its code of sealing or expunging conviction records. Ohio is one of the better states for allowing expungements and record sealing. There is more eligibility for more crimes compared to most. The new amendments have opened up even more offenses that can be sealed such as a variety of felonies of the fourth and fifth degrees, which were not previously eligible. 

It is clear to see that expungement is becoming more readily available. We would hope to see shifts in the increase of sealing and expungement, but the changes have been slow. This is due to the lengthy process one must go through. The process previously described can take years and is often costly. This is why there is still much work to be done to help those in these situations. 

Going forward a greater push for reform needs to be made. This comes from the public and those in positions of power. The more support and call for reform will lead to greater change. Something essential to the carceral system and economy. 

In the end, everyone should have a second chance at life if they are willing to make the change to turn their life around. Are you willing to help those struggling have a second chance at life? To do so, support organizations such as the Restoration of Rights Project and if eligible vote for change. 


Tria McLean is a student in the Master’s program for Law, Justice, and Culture at Ohio University.