It should come as no surprise that a criminal conviction can severely hurt your finances. Background checks don’t just list convictions, either. An arrest can still show up on a potential employer’s or landlord’s background check — even if you weren’t convicted.
If any of the above applies to you, you’re not alone. Between 70 million and 100 million Americans have some kind of criminal record – as many as one in three.
And often, crimes committed when an ex-offender is young can follow them for the rest of their lives. Barring a serious offense, a mistake you made when you were 25 may not have to affect your life at 55.
Anyone who carries a criminal record knows just how much it costs. Yet, there are some steps that past offenders can take to wipe the slate clean.
The Cost of Carrying a Criminal Record
Before we dive into the solution, let’s take a look at how much a criminal record can cost someone. Ex-offenders may face a variety of official sanctions or restrictions known as “collateral consequences”. A variety of professionals may run background checks, including but not limited to:
- Landlords/leasing agents
The internet also provides many commercial background check websites, available to the public. Anyone curious can stumble upon an ex-offender’s criminal history. That knowledge can add unnecessary strain to a relationship.
One of the biggest hurdles for ex-offenders is finding a decent job. Those who have served prison time face a far more difficult situation than those who have served community service, or paid fines.
For ex-offenders, ex-prisoners especially, having a job is important. Employment can reduce return prison visits from as much as 70 percent to as little as 3.3 percent.
But criminal records can also act as a barrier to higher education. According to the Brookings Institute, most schools ask applicants to disclose criminal history:
- Up to 80 percent of private schools
- 55 percent of public schools
- 40 percent of community colleges
Criminal histories can also hurt an ex-offender’s chance of receiving federal student aid. So it’s more unlikely and more expensive for ex-offenders to enter higher education.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There’s increasing support for “ban the box” initiatives nationwide. These initiatives want to make it easier for prisoners to apply for schools and jobs without disclosing their criminal history. Their aim is to remove the check box from applications asking if applicants have a criminal record.
Each state also offers ““clean slate” programs to ex-offenders. Participation in these programs makes it possible to clear your criminal record. It’s a process that can include expungement, closure, or destruction of records.
Hypothetical case study: Expunging a misdemeanor DUI
To illustrate how expungement works, we offer a hypothetical case that parallels the real-life experiences of some ex-offenders.
Jessica, a California native, made a mistake when she was younger. She was caught driving under the influence, and charged with a DUI. Though no one was hurt, Jessica was arrested, and charged with a misdemeanor.
Nine years later, Jessica is raising a family in California. She’s never driven under the influence again. She’s paid all her fines, and completed her probationary period without incident. But her arrest still remains on her record.
How can an arrest record affect my employment prospects?
Men who reported criminal convictions (of any kind) were 50% less likely1 to receive a callback on a job application.
For men and women convicted of felonies2:
If Jessica wants to apply for another job, she’ll have a harder time doing so. Her criminal record makes her at least 12% less likely to receive a callback from an application. Due to collateral consequences, may also have difficulty volunteering at her children’s school. Her school requires a background check before accepting volunteers.
Fed up, Jessica decides to pursue expungement. She’s able and willing to pay court fees, but hiring an attorney might be a bit expensive. Jessica’s credit is good, so she’s able to take out a personal loan at a reasonable rate.
As soon as she’s able, Jessica submits the expungement application, pays all fees. The judge allows an expungement. Because her offense is expunged, Jessica is legally allowed to answer no when asked if she has committed an offense.
Wiping the slate clean: what to do, and how to do it
If you’ve committed a misdemeanor or a non-violent felony, you may be able to ask for clemency. There are steps you can take to earn a pardon, or expunge past offenses from your history. But it depends on the level of the criminal offense.
What are the three basic levels of criminal offenses?
|Description||Public offenses less serious than official crimes. Often indictments are punishable by fines instead of jail time.|
|Common examples include||Traffic violations|
|Is it pardonable or expungeable||Does not apply — infractions cannot result in a jail sentence or probation.|
|Description||Minor crimes that often come with a combination of fines and jail time. Jail time can range from 90 days to one year.|
|Common examples include||DUI’s
Theft of property
|Is it pardonable or expungeable||Misdemeanors can be pardoned or expunged. Laws and procedures vary by state.|
|Description||Serious and often violent crimes. Felonies are punishable by imprisonment from one year to life.|
|Common examples include||Murder
Serious weapons charges
|Is it pardonable or expungeable||Nonviolent felonies may be expunged according to state. Violent felonies cannot be expunged except in very rare cases. Pardons can either be federal or state pardons depending on the offense.|
Step 1: Determine if you’re qualified.
Qualifications for clemency vary by state and criminal offense. But responsible parties will also consider whether the offender was an adult or juvenile when the crime was committed.
Juveniles face far more relaxed qualification standards than adults. States that offer no expungement protocol for adults will offer some for juveniles. It’s another form of clemency — so the mistakes of youth don’t follow offenders into adulthood.
Clemency requirements are more rigid for adults. It’s more likely that a misdemeanor will be forgiven than a felony. Other states allow expungement only if there was no conviction. For an in-depth exploration of expungement laws by state, click here.
Step 2. Find your type of clemency
There’s a pretty distinct difference between a pardon and an expungement:
What’s the difference between a pardon and an expungement?
|Does it erase the crime?||No|
|Who can grant a pardon?||The President (for federal offenses)
A State Governor (for state offenses)
State Parole and Pardon Boards (for state offenses)
|Will my crime show up on a background check?||Yes|
|Does it erase the crime?||Yes|
|Who can grant expungement?||Criminal court judges|
|Will my crime show up on a background check?||No|
It’s very rare that a serious or violent felony is eligible for expungement. No matter your state of residence, the following crimes are not eligible for expungement:
- Felonies or 1st degree misdemeanors with victims under 18 years of age
- Corruption of a minor
- Sexual imposition
- Sexual battery
- Obscenity or pornography charges involving a minor
- Serious weapon charges
Depending on the state you live in, some offenses are only eligible for a pardon, instead of expungement. For example, not all states allow for expungement of DUIs.
Again, pardons do not remove your criminal offense from your history altogether. Pardons act as proof that you have been officially forgiven. Even if you have obtained a pardon, your offense may still show up on a background check.
According to the VERA institute of justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization dedicated to improving the justice system, expungement laws aren’t available in every state. Here’s a list of states with expungement remedies:
Clearing Your Criminal Record: State by State
Scroll over your state to see specific rules and regulations regarding expungement where you live. It’s always best to check with an attorney for more detailed information.
Step 3: Hire an attorney
Clemency laws are legal mazes. Many states allow ex-offenders to submit their own appeals and proposals. As with other legal matters, self-representation may not be the wisest option.
Because it’s difficult for ex-offenders to attain higher-paying jobs, some attorney’s costs may be out of reach. How expensive the process is depends on the seriousness of offense. But when combined with court fees, applying for clemency can get pretty pricey.
Step 4: Making payments
Obtaining an expungement or pardon is a costly process. And despite all the benefits it provides, the fees may be too high for ex-offenders.
But there are two strategies for ex-offenders to make payments. Indirectly, through employment and vocational training. Or directly, through a loan.
The federal government offers access to a variety of grants for ex-offenders. And some grants are open to all applicants, criminal history or not. While you may have difficulty finding a grant to pay court fees directly, you may find others that offer vocational training.
The U.S. Department of Labor offers employment and training-based grants. You can explore all available grant opportunities online at Grants.gov. Search by using relevant keywords, and follow the application process.
The U.S. Job Corps offers vocational training opportunities to students aged 16 to 24. Students with a criminal record are eligible, so long as they:
- Do not face current court dates or fines
- Do not exhibit behavior issues
- Do not use illegal drugs
Depending on the current state of your credit, you may be able to take out an unsecured personal loan. Private lenders tend to be wary about lending to ex-offenders, but they may still lend to you if you can prove ability to repay.
Payday and secured loans (backed by collateral) may seem like a decent option. Be very cautious when considering either. Payday loans offer skyrocketing interest rates that hover around 300 percent. And with secured loans, your personal property is at stake if you fail to repay.
Wiping the slate clean takes time — but it’s worth it
Overcoming a past offense and clearing the slate may be a long, tedious process for some. And some aspects our justice system are in desperate need of reform. But finding some degree of clemency — if you are eligible — is worth it.
You’ll enjoy larger incomes over the course of your career and wider access to federal services. This includes access for public funds such as federal student loans and welfare, as well as regaining the ability to vote. Financing a pardon or expungement can be complicated. But once you’ve done it, you’ll be back on the right track.