As the lingering effects of the Great Recession persist, states are trying to figure out how to reduce the jobless rate in their locale. One solution is to eliminate asking applicants to disclose their criminal record, something that keeps some unemployed individuals who made a mistake long ago from ever getting work. But how might that impact the crime rate in the state?
Late last year, Georgia GOP State Senator Josh McKoon approached my class asking for assistance. One of his constituents from Columbus, who committed a felony theft crime when he was 18, had been unable to find work. He served his time and completed his parole, but cited his criminal background as his biggest impediment to secure employment. Sen. McKoon asked our students if they would look into researching what other states do about expunging criminal records.
Of course, expunging all traces of your criminal record doesn’t mean a complete clean state. Local law enforcement keeps files on record for judicial matters and possible future investigations. But such a policy does take it out of the public eye, and means the applicant doesn’t have to report past crimes.
Researching the state policies list at U.S. Legal.com, we found that 38 states (plus the District of Columbia) have some form of an expungement policy for people over the age of 21 who were found guilty of a felony crime. The remaining 12 states don’t have such a policy, though almost every state expunges records for juvenile offenders, or those arrested but not convicted.
Using FBI data from 2012, the students looked at two types of crime rate per state: violent crimes and property crimes. The students then ran a difference of means test to see if the states crime rate averages for those that expunge criminal records are significantly higher or lower than those that do not expunge criminal records.
For violent crimes, states that expunge criminal records have slightly higher rates than those that do not expunge (391 per 100,000 residents versus 337 per 100,000 residents). However, the test revealed that the differences in averages are not significant enough.
It’s a different story for property crime rates. In states that expunge criminal records, their property crime rates (2,920 per 100,000 residents) are significantly higher than those that do not expunge criminal records (2,639 per 100,000 residents).
Does that mean states shouldn’t expunge criminal records? Perhaps, but it is worth noting that the difference is significant at the 90 percent level; most academics frown on any significance level below 95 percent probability that the results can be chalked up to error or chance.
Additionally, there might be a smarter way to do an expungement policy that balances the ex-con rights with the employer. Georgia is developing a policy that allows such questions to be handled in an interview process, where the applicant can explain what happened, instead of an online format where such explanations are not possible. This would give the employer the chance to see whether the person who paid their debt to society deserves a second chance, and the applicant a chance to prove himself or herself.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. Student researchers include Lavurn Billups, Jalen Butler, Matt Crawford, Donta Daniel, Levi Evans, Braxton Ford, Delaney James, Charity Knight, Roxanne Lape, Michael Leseman, Sam Manley, Clay Scott, Jordan Sheffield, Jacqueline Tipsword, Mark Wagner, Allison Weeks and Taylor Wynn.