In the movie “Pursuit of Happyness,” Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) is arrested for unpaid parking tickets while painting his apartment. The problem is that he had an interview for an internship with Dean Whitter the next day. His check for the amount needs time to clear, so he finds himself having to show up for the interview in his painting clothes.
Luckily, Gardner is honest with his interviewers about his situation. When grilled for details, he tells a funny joke, charms the socks off of everyone, and he gets the internship.
In real life, that doesn’t always happen. The criminal record doesn’t even get you that interview and a chance to explain yourself. That’s why State Senator Josh McKoon met with us. A constituent who was convicted of stealing enough stuff to be charged with a felony served his time in jail, and even completed his parole. But when it came to hiring, he may as well be back in jail.
Sen. McKoon didn’t tell us how to think. He just asked if we would look into what other states do, and whether it works or not. So we did just that, and here is what we found.
We learned that nearly every state and county provides a way to expunge criminal records for arrest records without a conviction, for misdemeanors, and for most non-violent juvenile crimes. That means it’s taken out of the public view, though not out of police files, of course. But when it comes to felonies, it’s a different story. Twelve states don’t allow for felons to expunge their records for such crimes committed while an adult, while 38 states and the District of Columbia allow for at least some felonies to be expunged, with some hoops to jump through, of course.
My students researched those state laws, and looked up what others found in the scholarly sources, even looking into what other countries do. Then they dove into the FBI files to look up violent crime rates and property crime rates per state. They even learned how to run a difference of means test, so they could examine whether states that expunge felonies of those 21 and over have higher crime rates or lower crime rates than those that do not expunge such records.
We learned that states that expunge criminal records have higher property crime rates (2,920 per 100,000 residents) that are higher than those that do not expunge criminal records (2,639 per 100,000 residents). The results are statistically significant, but only at the 90 percent level. Most economists wouldn’t accept such findings in their journal (it typically needs to be 95 percent or better).
When it comes to 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 means were not statistically significant at any level.
Georgia might have a solution. Reforms proposed by Governor Nathan Deal and Sen. McKoon and locals like Troup Circles seem to balance an employer’s desire to know more about their applicants with an ex-felon’s right to explain himself or herself in person, like Gardner could. And that might turn out to be a policy that would let some ex-cons prove themselves, which could lower that property crime rate and let those who made a mistake get a second chance at legitimate work.