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How to clear your criminal record and reap the financial benefits

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 A criminal conviction can severely hurt your finances. Having a criminal record can lead to discrimination in employment and disqualify you for other economic opportunities including public assistance programs, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. A criminal record can also impact access to higher education. For these and other reasons, individuals who have records may face decreased wages for the remainder of their careers.

If any of the above applies to you, you’re not alone; more than 70 million Americans have some kind of criminal record.. However, barring serious offenses, mistakes you made in the past don’t have to last your whole life. There are steps that past offenders can take to wipe the slate clean.

The financial barriers of carrying a criminal record

Ex-offenders may face a variety of sanctions or restrictions known as collateral consequences. These consequences include legal and regulatory restrictions limiting, or entirely barring, those who have been convicted of crimes from employment, business and occupational licensing, housing, education and other opportunities.

Background checks may also pose a challenge for those with a criminal history when it comes to accessing economic opportunities. Employers, leasing agents and landlords, and lenders may all conduct background checks when considering an application.

Many commercial background check websites are available to the public on the internet. Anyone curious can find an ex-offender’s criminal history. That knowledge can create a variety of financial challenges and obstacles.

Obtaining a job

One of the biggest hurdles for ex-offenders is finding decent jobs. Those who have served prison time face far more difficult situations than those who have done community service or paid fines.

Nearly1 in 3 adults in this country has a criminal record. This can pose challenges as having a criminal conviction can decrease employment opportunities. A survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 83 percent of human resources professionals reported using a criminal history check as a pre-hire screening in 2021. Applicants who have a criminal record are about half as likely to get a call back or a job offer.

Having a criminal record also impacts lifetime earnings. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that individuals who have spent time in prison early in life may see their annual earnings reduced by 52 percent. Those convicted of a felony but not imprisoned may face an annual earnings reduction of about 22 percent on average. Even a misdemeanor conviction has financial ramifications, causing an average 16 percent reduction in annual income.
Chart describing how a criminal background affects employment opportunities

Pursuing higher education and financial aid

Criminal records can also be barriers to higher education, an important path toward higher-paying jobs and expanded economic opportunities. About 72 percent of institutions require applicants to disclose their criminal history. Depending on the nature of the crime, an admission’s application may be denied because of the criminal background.

A criminal record can also hurt an ex-offender’s chance of receiving federal student aid, making it more expensive and less likely 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, which seek to remove a check box on college applications that ask whether applicants have a criminal record. 

The “ban the box’  initiatives aim to make it easier for ex-offenders to apply to schools without disclosing criminal history. Studies have shown that asking about criminal history during the application process causes many prospective students to stop filling out the application.

The Clean Slate Initiative also provides hope for ex-offenders. Clean Slate policies are gaining momentum nationwide and involve expunging criminal records for individuals who stay crime-free for 10 years.

But criminal records can also be barriers to higher education, one path toward higher-paying jobs. According to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, most colleges ask applicants to disclose criminal history:

  • 81 percent of private colleges.
  • 55 percent of public colleges.
  • 40 percent of community colleges.

A criminal record can also hurt an ex-offender’s chance of receiving federal student aid, so it’s more expensive and less likely 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, which seek to remove the check box from applications asking if applicants have criminal records. These initiatives want to make it easier for ex-offenders to apply to schools and jobs without disclosing their criminal history.

Each state also offers “clean slate” programs that make it possible for ex-offenders to clear their criminal records. It’s a process that can include expungement, closure or destruction of records.

Chart describing the cost to expunge vs. the cost to carry a criminal record

How to clear your criminal record

If you’ve committed a misdemeanor or a nonviolent 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?

Infraction Misdemeanor Felony
Description Public offenses less serious than official crimes. May incur fines. Minor crimes. May incur fines or jail time that can range from 90 days to one year. Serious and often violent crimes. Punishable by imprisonment from one year to life.
Common examples Traffic violations DUIs, theft of property, assault Murder, sexual misconduct, serious weapons charges
Pardonable or expungable? Does not apply — infractions cannot result in a jail sentence or probation May be pardoned or expunged. Laws and procedures vary by state. Nonviolent felonies may be expunged. Violent felonies cannot be expunged except in very rare cases. Federal or state pardons may be possible.

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, and it’s more likely that a misdemeanor will be forgiven than a felony. Some states allow expungement only if there was no conviction. Also, note that some states offer sealing instead of expungement. Sealing doesn’t erase the record entirely but hides it from public view. Certain agencies and employers will still be able to see sealed records. For an in-depth exploration of expungement laws by state, visit the Restoration of Rights Project.

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:

  • Murder.
  • Felonies or first-degree misdemeanors with victims under 18 years of age.
  • Corruption of a minor.
  • Sexual imposition.
  • Rape.
  • Sexual battery.
  • Obscenity or pornography charges involving a minor.
  • Serious weapons charges.

Step 2: Find your type of clemency

Pardons and expungements are two different forms of clemency; one of the biggest distinctions is how they will affect your future prospects.

What’s the difference between a pardon and an expungement?

Pardon Expungement
Does it erase the crime? No Yes
Who can grant it? The president (for federal offenses), a state governor (for state offenses) or state board of pardons and paroles (for state offenses) Criminal court judges
Will the crime show up on a background check? Yes No

Unlike expungement, 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.

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 the expungement of DUIs.

Step 3: Hire an attorney

Clemency laws are legal mazes; even if your state allows you to submit your own appeal and proposal, self-representation may not be the wisest option. An attorney can help you navigate the intricacies of your situation and help you find the best path forward.

Step 4: Make payments

Obtaining an expungement or pardon is a costly process, and despite the benefits an expungement 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.

For instance, the Job Corps offers vocational training opportunities to students aged 16 to 24. Students with a criminal record are generally eligible as long as they do not have any pending court dates or fines, have not been convicted of a disqualifying crime and do not require court supervision.

Depending on the current state of your credit, you may be able to take out an unsecured personal loan to pay for court fees. Private lenders tend to be wary about lending to ex-offenders, but they may still lend to you if you can prove your ability to repay.

Be very cautious when considering either payday or secured loans (backed by collateral). Payday loans charge exorbitant interest rates that can be as high as 400 percent, and with secured loans, your personal property is at stake if you fail to repay.

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.

If Jessica wants to apply for another job, she’ll have a harder time doing so. Due to collateral consequences, she 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 and 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 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 of our justice system are in desperate need of reform. But if you’re eligible, finding some degree of clemency is worth it.

By seeking expungement, you’ll enjoy larger incomes over the course of your career and wider access to federal services. This includes access to public funds, such as federal student loans and welfare, as well as 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.

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Written by
Ben Luthi
Contributing writer
Ben Luthi is a personal finance and travel writer who loves helping people learn how to live life more fully. His work has appeared in several publications, including U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, Yahoo! Finance and more.
Edited by
Associate loans editor