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Study: Removing Previously Obtained Criminal Records Does Not Boost Job Outcomes

Findings Have Implications for Criminal Record Remediation Laws

Millions of people in the United States are charged with crimes each year, with each charge adding marks to an individual’s criminal record. In a new study, researchers investigated whether removing a previously obtained criminal record improved employment outcomes. The study found that, with a few exceptions, removing an existing record did not improve labor market outcomes, on average.

The study was conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Rutgers University, the University of Chicago, the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. It is released as an NBER working paper.

“Criminal record remediation laws have been widely enacted to improve employment opportunities for millions of people,” says Andrew Garin, assistant professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College, who coauthored the study. “But our findings suggest that records harm labor market trajectories in ways that are difficult to undo later.”

Nearly 97 million individuals have a criminal history record in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Interstate Identification Index. Most employers perform background checks for open positions and many job applications ask about criminal history, with employment rates lower for individuals with criminal records.

To increase opportunities for individuals with criminal records, jurisdictions across the country have expanded initiatives to expunge or seal criminal records. Criminal record remediation policies offer great promise: If records alone are preventing people from accessing employment opportunities, clearing a record can be done with relatively little cost, and in some jurisdictions can be done wholesale.

In this study, researchers examined the labor market impacts of three major criminal record remediation policies in the United States that change or limit the availability of criminal history information reported in employment background checks. They linked publicly available individual-level criminal records data from four jurisdictions—Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Bexar County, Texas—to administrative tax records at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

The study examined whether record remediation increased employment, using the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which prohibits reporting of criminal charges that do not lead to a conviction (mainly dismissals) after seven years for jobs that pay less than $75,000 a year, as well as similar state laws (e.g., Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Law of 2018, which legislated automated sealing of all non-convictions).

The study’s findings were consistent across the different criminal record remediation policies and across jurisdictions. In all but a few notable cases, there was little evidence that clearing a record improved labor market outcomes for the affected individual. The study found no evidence that removal of non-conviction records from criminal background checks at seven years under FCRA increased the likelihood of having any formal employment income for those whose records were completely clear seven years after their last non-conviction event. This finding held across almost every employment-related outcome.

Similarly, using variation in Maryland where state law further removes records of charges leading to conviction, the study failed to find a detectable improvement in average employment rates seven years after an individual’s last conviction. These results were further supported by the study’s analysis of the Pennsylvania Clean Slate Law, which found no effect of having non-conviction records 18 months or older automatically sealed on employment outcomes among those with only non-convictions on their record.

“Ultimately, our reading of the totality of the evidence is that existing record remediation policies have limited effects on employment, at least on average,” says Garin.

The authors suggest that a scarring mechanism is at play: Records initially create gaps in employment or limit access to opportunities with job ladders or long-run employment potential which, in turn, lead to subsequent adverse outcomes separate from the record itself. A notable exception is evidence that record remediation policies increase the rate of work on electronically mediated gig platforms, which typically require workers to pass a background check but do not screen on other employment history.

The authors suggest that developing and evaluating remediation policies with shorter waiting periods is an important area for future study.

The study was funded by the New Venture Fund’s Clean Slate Initiative.


Summarized froman NBER Working Paper, Can You Erase the Mark of a Criminal Record? Labor Market Impacts on Criminal Record Remediation, by Agan, AY (Rutgers University), Garin, A (Carnegie Mellon University), Koustas, DK (University of Chicago), Mas, A (University of California, Berkeley), and Yang, C (Harvard Law School). Copyright 2024 The Authors. All rights reserved.

About Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy
The Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy is home to two internationally recognized graduate-level institutions at Carnegie Mellon University: the School of Information Systems and Management and the School of Public Policy and Management. This unique colocation combined with its expertise in analytics set Heinz College apart in the areas of cybersecurity, health care, the future of work, smart cities, and arts & entertainment. In 2016, INFORMS named Heinz College the #1 academic program for Analytics Education. For more information, please visit