The benefits of erasing an inmate’s criminal record outweigh the costs — by thousands of dollars, according to a study published by a group of students at Stanford this month.
The study, completed by five undergraduates in conjunction with the San Jose State University Record Clearance Project, looked at what it costs the state of California, as well as inmates themselves, to expunge (that is, erase from public view) their records. The group then compared those numbers with the potential gains in income, gross domestic product, tax revenues, and other net-positive financing for inmates whose records had been expunged.
It found that the benefits of expunging prisoners’ records outweigh the costs by $5,760 per person in just one year:
CREDIT: Undergraduate Public Policy Senior Practicum Stanford University
Over time, the benefits start to outweigh costs even more. “This number is an underestimate of the net benefits,” the study’s authors note, “because it does not include identified benefits that could not be quantified. Since most benefits accrue across years but costs do not, cumulative net benefits would increase over time.”
There are, of course, limitations to the data. For one thing, it focuses only on county jail inmates or recipients of probation, who are eligible in California for expungement, but it leaves out prison inmates whose crimes don’t qualify under California’s current law. And since it’s not a published paper, it hasn’t been edited or peer-reviewed with the same rigor that other studies may get.
Still, it bears down on a tangible issue in the United States: People with criminal records face serious discrimination in employment. Studies have found that people returning from convictions suffer a joblessness rate of 60-70 percent one year out. One study showed that people with a criminal history in New York City were 50 percent less likely to be called back for a job interview. It follows that removing the mechanism that discloses that past to employers would positively impact the ex-offender’s earning potential and thus contribution to society.
Other groups have tried to do this by banning employers from asking about criminal histories on job applications. That effort, ‘ban the box,’ has been generally successful in California, along with other states, but it usually still allows for a criminal background check somewhere in the application process. Expungement, on the other hand, removes the possibility that such information would ever come up.