How to clear your criminal record and reap the financial benefits

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It should come as no surprise that a criminal conviction can severely hurt your finances. Background checks don’t just list convictions, either. Even if you weren’t convicted, an arrest can still show up in a potential employer’s or landlord’s background check.

If any of the above applies to you, you’re not alone; more than 70 million Americans have some kind of criminal record, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. 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.

What is a criminal record?

A criminal record can include everything from arrests to convictions. Some agencies, including the FBI, narrow the definition to felony arrests or other specific situations. Even if the final court ruling was in the defendant’s favor, criminal charges will usually show up in a criminal background check.

Criminal records affect a lot of Americans — one in three adults in the US has been arrested by the age of 23, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit centered on criminal justice reform. In some cases, authorities will expunge a charge from a person’s criminal record, which erases the interaction with law enforcement. In most cases, however, the person with a criminal record will need to account for the record with everyone from landlords to lenders.

The financial barriers of carrying a criminal record

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:

  • Employers
  • Landlords and leasing agents.
  • Lenders.
  • Attorneys.

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 decent jobs. Those who have served prison time face far more difficult situations than those who have done community service or paid fines.

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.

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 expungeable? 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 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 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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