Who benefits most (and least) from criminal record relief policies?

Criminal records lead to both formal and informal exclusion from employment, housing, and education, and adversely affect immigration, mobility, professional licensing, voting, and an array of other rights and opportunities. In turn, these barriers can increase recidivism by inhibiting successful re-entry into society.

Recognizing the long-term harms of a criminal record, as well as the deep racial disparities that are endemic to law enforcement in America, a majority of states have passed laws that allow for some types of criminal record relief. Yet numerous historical examples suggest that racially neutral policies can have profoundly disparate effects across racial groups. In the case of criminal record relief, racial equity in eligibility for a clean slate has not yet been examined. 

Using detailed data from the California Department of Justice and in partnership with the California Policy Lab, we find that one in five people with convictions in the state met criteria for full conviction relief under the state’s automatic relief laws. Yet the share of Black Americans eligible for relief was lower than white Americans, reproducing racial disparities in criminal records. An additional one in seven Black men currently has a conviction record, compared to their white counterparts. 

We then evaluated two hypothetical reforms in how eligibility for clearance is determined that might alter clearance rates across groups: clearing discretionary cases, and a sunset rule that would allow clearance automatically for convictions more than 7 years old. We find that, together, these changes to criminal record clearance would reduce the share of Black men in California with convictions on their criminal records from 22% to 9%, thereby narrowing the difference compared to white men from 15 to 7 percentage points.

Our results suggest that, despite being designed as an ostensibly race neutral policy intended by reformers to reduce the collateral consequences of mass incarceration, criminal record relief policies can have highly disparate benefits by race. Going forward, we suggest that equity impact analyses like this could be employed to inform future policy efforts, potentially helping policymakers avoid the unintended consequences that can result from even well-intentioned efforts at reform. 


Policy Brief

Examining racial disparities in California criminal record relief

Journal Article

Racial Equity in Eligibility for a Clean Slate under Automatic Criminal Record Relief Laws


Wired: ‘Clean Slate’ Justice Laws Offer a Second Chance—Only to Some


Vox: Hundreds of thousands of Californians may soon get their criminal records cleared

Our Work