The Issue

The Research Question

The Study

1 in 5 Californians has a criminal conviction that creates significant barriers long after a sentence is served. When California begins to automatically clear eligible records starting in July 2022, however, many will not know that their records have been cleared because California does not currently have a process in place to inform individuals about their status. To what extent are eligible people aware of automatic record clearance? What impact do they believe these policy changes will have on their own lives? How will their perceptions of the policy’s impact affect their own patterns of behavior in relevant domains (employment, housing, etc.)? We will survey up to 400 individuals in California who are eligible for automatic record clearance to gauge their awareness of their eligibility, their attitudes about the policy and its effectiveness, as well as what the policy will mean for their own lives.


The Issue 

One in five Californians has a criminal conviction that creates barriers to economic and social stability and mobility long after a sentence is served. Further, Black and Latinx Californians are more likely to have a criminal conviction than White Californians, contributing to disparities in multiple social and economic outcomes. 

Criminal record clearance is one approach to remedying these collateral consequences. Historically in California, record relief has only been available through a burdensome petition-based process for eligible persons. Because the process has been burdensome, take-up has been low, but those whose records are cleared are aware of their new status. 

Beginning in July of 2022, under AB 1076, California will join a short list of states that automatically clear eligible records. And while community and advocacy groups, like Code for America, are planning to run informational campaigns about automatic record clearance, there is no government agency-led plan to notify individuals that their records have been automatically cleared. As a result, many might never know the new status of their cases. Thus, they might not be able to reap the full benefits of having their records cleared. 


The Research Question 

Qualitative research has highlighted the potential benefits of record clearance for people with criminal records. Our research team seeks to build on prior research by seeking to understand the extent and nature of knowledge and perceptions that eligible people have about California’s new automatic record clearance policies, as well as how knowledge and perceptions inform their pattens of behavior in various domains of life. 

Specifically, we ask the following questions: 

  • To what extent are eligible people aware of automatic record clearance? What do they know, and where did they learn what they know? 
  • What impact, if any, do they believe automatic record clearance will have on their own lives?  
  • And how will their perceptions of the policy’s impact affect their own patterns of behavior in relevant domains, such as employment, housing, and financial markets? For instance, to what extent and how will their perceptions of automatic record clearance affect whether, how, and where eligible individuals search for work or housing? 


The Study 

The study will unfold in two stages.   

To determine the extent to which eligible individuals are aware of their automatic record clearance eligibility as well as what impact they imagine that clearance will have on their prospects, in the first stage we will administer 400 surveys to eligible individuals about their knowledge of automatic record clearance in California, their own clearance status, the impact they perceive that clearance might have on their prospects, and the implications of clearance for their own patterns of behavior, including efforts to find employment (or a better job), to seek better housing, to access education and training programs previously off limits, and to engage in criminal activity. Multivariate analysis will be conducted to determine how and for whom automatic clearance shapes perceptions of the policy’s impact on their lives as well as their patterns of behavior, especially as it relates to labor force participation, education, housing, family obligations, and criminal involvement. 

Informed by what we have learned from analysis of survey data, during stage two we will conduct in-depth interviews with a subset of 75-100 people to better understand the nature of individuals’ perceptions of the policy, how these perceptions were formed, and how these perceptions come to shape their patterns of behavior in different domains of their lives. 

This study is in collaboration with the California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley and is supported by a subaward grant from the New Venture Fund.



Research Team

Sandra Susan SMith

Research Lead, Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice, Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute, and Professor of Sociology 

Lindsay Apperson

Research Coordinator

Danielle Zhou

Research Assistant

Related Resources

Selbin, J., McCrary, J., & Epstein, J. (2018). "Unmarked? Criminal record clearing and employment outcomes." The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-), 108(1), 1-72.

Prescott, J.J. and Starr, Sonja B. (2019). "Expungement of Criminal Convictions: An Empirical Study." Harvard Law Review, Vol. 133, No. 8, pp.2460-555.

Chien, C. V. (2019). "America’s Paper Prisons: The Second Chance Gap." Michigan Law Review, Vol. 119, Issue 3, pp.519-612.