The Link Between Unemployment and Expungement Laws

by on March 7th, 2015
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According to the latest Department of Labor statistics, the ten states which top the list when it comes to unemployment rate are Nevada, California, Michigan, South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Georgia, and Illinois. With an unemployment rate of 13.4%, Nevada leads the nation. The combined unemployment rate of these ten states is 10.99%. Conversely, the ten states with lowest rate of unemployment (North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Iowa, Hawaii, Virginia) have a combined unemployment rate of just 5.42%, with North Dakota being the lowest at 3.5%.

How can we explain this dramatic difference in unemployment rates? The explanation, it clearly seems, has to do with expungement laws.

A 2006 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that 80% percent of mid-size to large employers check the criminal backgrounds of applicants. It just may be that background checking is the only real growth industry in America, because according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 3.1% of American adults are on probation, incarcerated, or on parole. That’s a staggering 1 in every 32 adults (and that doesn’t even include the millions arrested on summary offenses)!

After a thorough examination of the expungement laws of all fifty states, one can see a clear pattern which shows that states with the most stringent expungement laws have the highest rates of unemployment, while states with lenient expungement laws tend to have lowest unemployment rates.

So, just what is expungement and how does it factor into unemployment? When a criminal charge is expunged, it no longer shows up in certain public records, such as in background checks conducted by employers. Of course, expungement doesn’t make a conviction magically disappear (law enforcement agencies can still see them and judges can still see them), it just “hides” certain information from the public. In other words, it doesn’t destroy records, it seals them.

Let’s examine the link between strict expungement laws and high rates of unemployment. Generally speaking, states with high rates of unemployment do not allow misdemeanors to be sealed, even if it’s a low-grade misdemeanor. Michigan (with an unemployment rate of 11.1%) is one such example, along with South Carolina (11%), Florida (10.6%), Mississippi (10.6%), North Carolina (10.5%), and Georgia (10.3%). Of the 10 states with the highest unemployment, only four offer some sort of expungement for those convicted of misdemeanors, and in states like Illinois and Georgia, expungement of misdemeanors is limited only to first-time offenders and juvenile offenders. In other words, if you slap your wife in Florida or punch out someone in a bar in Michigan, you may never work again.

The opposite holds true for states with low rates of unemployment. Of the ten states with the lowest unemployment rates, only three (Hawaii, Iowa, and Wyoming) will not expunge or seal misdemeanors.

Many states will expunge misdemeanors, and even felonies, after a certain time period has elapsed with no subsequent arrests. Again, states with high unemployment rates show a trend toward stricter expungement laws. For instance, in Nevada (with 13.4% unemployment), a gross misdemeanor can be sealed from public records after 7 years, while misdemeanors can be sealed in Rhode Island (10.5%) after 5 years. In Illinois (10%), a four-year time period must elapse, and is only limited to those sentenced to probation. At the other end of the spectrum are states like North Dakota (3.5% unemployment), where both misdemeanors and felonies can be sealed after 3 years. Misdemeanors can also be sealed in New Hampshire (5.4%) after 3 years.

Not surprisingly, states with the most severe expungement laws are bottom-dwellers when it comes to employment. In Michigan (11.1% unemployment) you cannot seek expungement if you have more than one offense, which includes summary offenses and traffic tickets. In other words, run a red light in Detroit and then get fined for disorderly conduct, and you may be deemed “unemployable” when looking for a job. In North Carolina (10.5%), you are entitled to only one expungement per lifetime, and you’re out of luck if you’ve been convicted of any type of misdemeanor. California, which has the second-highest unemployment rate, doesn’t officially expunge convictions, but will change the finding of guilt to a “dismissal”. The arrest, however, which will still show up on background checks.

Many of the states with the nation’s lowest unemployment rates have extremely lenient expungement laws. One such state is Nebraska (with an unemployment rate of just 4.2%), where you may be able to expunge or seal your entire criminal record. Nebraska is also the only state which offers a do-it-yourself expungement kit (expungements in many states require the hiring of a lawyer). In some states, like South Dakota (4.6%), they’ll even do the work for you; South Dakota law demands that all records be automatically sealed after successful completion of probation. In Vermont (5.8%) and Oklahoma (5.9%), your entire criminal record can be expunged, felonies and all.

If you were convicted in Iowa (6.0%), you may be able to expunge offenses from your record if the court gave you a deferred judgment, such as probation. Wyoming (5.8%) has very strict guidelines for expungement, but the state will only disclose felonies and high misdemeanors in background checks.

Would states see an increase in crime rates by adopting more lenient expungement laws? Surprisingly, the states with low unemployment rates and lenient expungement laws have traditionally been the “safest” states, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Of the ten states with the lowest crime rates, six of them are on the list of states with lenient expungement laws and/or low unemployment rates (New Hampshire, Vermont, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Iowa). New Hampshire also has the lowest murder rate in America, and the second lowest rate of aggravated assault, despite having some of the most lenient expungement laws.

Nevada, on the other hand, has the nation’s highest unemployment rate, as well as the nation’s highest crime rate, with a murder rate nearly seven times higher than New Hampshire’s, and a rape rate of 43 cases per 100,000 people (compared to the national average of 30). Nevada also tops the list in robberies, with an average 270 reported cases per 100,000 residents (New Hampshire’s rate is 33). Nevada is a prime example of why strict expungement laws are counter-productive.

Other states with strict expungement laws are leaders when it comes to crime rate. South Carolina (third in crime, fourth in unemployment) only seals records of first-time offenders who commit petty crimes punishable by no more than 30 days in jail. Florida (fifth in crime, fifth in unemployment) is another example, as is Michigan (tenth in crime, third in unemployment).

As you can plainly see, the link between unemployment rates and expungement laws is impossible to overlook.

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